The Politics of the Body

The Politics of the Body

Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age


Copyright © Alison Phipps 2014
The right of Alison Phipps to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2014 by Polity Press
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1 Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism: Framing the Politics of the Body
2 Sexual Violence and the Politics of Victimhood
3 Gender and Islam in a Neoconservative World
4 The Commodified Politics of the Sex Industry
5 The New Reproductive Regimes of Truth
Further Reading


This book could not have been written without the help of my partner Jan Selby, who has provided practical assistance, emotional support and an intellectual sounding board which is second to none. I count myself incredibly lucky to have so much to say to, and so much respect for, my partner in life: being in a relationship with him has helped me to tackle this ambitious project. I am also deeply grateful to my colleagues and friends Trishima Mitra-Kahn and Margaretta Jolly and the anonymous Polity reviewers for their feedback on various drafts of the manuscript, to Jonathan Skerrett from Polity Press, who has been enthusiastic and supportive throughout, and to Gail Ferguson for her thorough and rapid editing.

This book is dedicated to two people: first, my friend Lisa Smirl, who passed away at the age of 37 in February 2013. Her courage, grace and humanity in the face of an incredibly aggressive terminal cancer which cut short her own promising academic career left me in awe, and inspired me to be truer to myself in work and in life. Second, I dedicate this volume to my daughter Caitlin Phipps Selby, born in September 2010, who has brought me more joy than I could ever have anticipated. I hope that, by the time she is grown, some of the debates covered here will have moved on in positive ways, and the feminist movement in particular will have found a way to negotiate a fraught and difficult macro-political context. Judging from the passion, thoughtfulness and good grace shown by so many of my feminist students (of all genders), I have great hopes that this will be the case. I would like to thank my students for being the biggest pleasure of my working life, and give especial thanks to Tom Chadwick who provided me with valuable research assistance for this book. Any errors or omissions in the text are solely my responsibility.


In the summer of 2010, I was heavily pregnant with my first child. One early evening, as the nights were drawing in, my partner and I attended a barbecue organized by neighbours in Brighton: the predictably cosmopolitan, left-leaning crowd. One couple in particular, directors of a local alternative theatre company, talked us through the home water birth of their third baby, which they had celebrated the previous year. As I shared anxieties about my own impending delivery, the experienced father provided reassurance and various tips on how to deal with the pain without resorting to drugs or epidural anaesthesia. Giving birth should come naturally to women, he said – it was something we had all been designed to do. Furthermore, it was a process which would put me in touch with my strength and my powerful, primal self. My partner, understandably, wanted to know what he ought to do while I was undergoing this transformative experience. ‘You protect the door of the cave,’ he was told. The incident gave us much to talk about in terms of the juxtaposition between an unapologetically biologically essentialist narrative and its otherwise unconventional source. Although this book is not a personal one, it has been inspired by experiences such as this, which led me to want to explore the contemporary discursive and political terrain around issues to do with women’s bodies.1

I began this research in 2008 after a discussion in one of my postgraduate feminist theory classes. The episode inspired me to reflect upon the difficulties of positioning for contemporary feminist theory and activism in a political context characterized by binaries and extremes and in which women’s bodies have become battlegrounds both material and symbolic. In class, an Iranian student, who had chosen not to adopt the chador, was presenting her view of practices of veiling in her country as essentially oppressive and a reflection of a patriarchal value system. The room was silent while she spoke, in deference to her first-hand experience and also highlighting the discomfort many western students feel around voicing opinions about politically loaded topics in Othered cultures. However, before her narrative was finished, she was interrupted by a white European student, who had come top of the class in the previous term’s feminist theory assignment and who gently explained to her Iranian colleague the empowerment she felt could be granted and expressed through the choice to cover one’s face, body and/or hair. This incident was fascinating in its reversal of the usual problematic between feminists from the West and women from Muslim-majority societies. It spoke to potential shifts in the political and academic landscape in the West which I felt needed to be set in a broader context.

I chose to focus my research on four contemporary western debates centred on women’s bodies which have been marked by controversy and contention: sexual violence, gender and Islam, sex work, and childbirth and breastfeeding. During the course of a number of years embedded in the fields of literature, media and politics around these issues, I found much experiential material which provided alternative stories to those narrated above. As any ethnographer knows, the arena of human feeling, thought and action will always be full of diversity, multiplicity and contradiction. However, as I began to follow different threads and piece together the web of discourses and power relations which constitute contemporary orthodoxies around the issues in question, a number of important common themes started to emerge. Some were highlighted in existing research, and others emerged as I trawled through a huge variety of primary sources – policy documents and reports, newspapers, magazines, novels, blogs and other media – and conducted informal interviews with key official and unofficial political actors. As I worked, I found myself asking difficult questions: how, in the same period, have left-wingers, academics and other political progressives simultaneously defended powerful men accused of sex crimes, been critiqued for ignoring honour killings and other ‘culture-based’ forms of gender violence, positioned topless tabloid pictures as empowering, and opposed these same pictures for sexualizing breasts and undermining the breastfeeding which is an essential part of ‘natural motherhood’? Exploring these pointed me each time to the same common factor: the contemporary political and economic coalition of neoliberalism and neoconservatism which has put opposition movements very much on the defensive. This, I found, has posed particular dilemmas for feminism, which is currently enjoying a resurgence but has perhaps never operated in a more difficult political and cultural milieu.

This book, then, engages with the current state of feminism in relation to mainstream and popular political discourse and the framework of neoliberalism and neoconservatism in particular. It presents a challenge to emergent retrosexism on both the right and left wing of contemporary politics, as well as what I view as problematic developments within feminism itself: a focus on women’s agency and identity at the expense of examining framing structures; a reluctance to moralize or adopt ‘victim’ positions which can be seen as silencing and which maps onto the omnipresent politics of personal responsibility; and ‘radical’ movements in the spheres of both sexuality and health which leave unchallenged the role of the capitalist market, the material and discursive framings of contemporary femininities (especially how ‘progressive’ forms may still be retrograde in their lineage or effects), and the operation of privilege. Overall, I contend that the rejection of neoconservative themes, agendas and institutions has within much feminist thought and action produced ideas and politics which can be seen as neoliberal in their emphasis on agency, ‘empowerment’ and individual choice. This is a development of Eisenstein’s (2010) work on the co-optation of liberal feminism by corporate capitalism, and Fraser’s (2009, 2013) analysis of feminism’s relationship with neoliberalism, in which she elucidates how elements of the feminist critique of capitalism, namely those focused on cultural and identity-based recognition, have been co-opted in the current political context, while structural and economic themes have been lost or transmuted into individualistic self-betterment goals. My work provides a detailed account of the impact of these discursive shifts in a variety of different topic areas, also showing how it is not just liberal but postmodern, postcolonial and ‘third wave’ forms of feminism which have been seduced by the market, and incorporating the dialectic between neoliberalism and neoconservatism which has affected left-wing movements in particular, and feminism especially, due to synergies between radical feminist activism and ‘law and order’ agendas (Brown 1995; Bumiller 2008).

Although many of the issues covered in this book are over-researched and debated, my analysis is genealogical (Foucault 1977) in its concern with how the discussions themselves are constructed: the concepts and rhetorics or ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1980: 131) deployed, the political allegiances being made, and their contextual conditions of possibility. Following Fraser and Gordon (1994: 310), my approach is based on the conviction that politics has a role to play in defining social reality and that, furthermore, particular terms (or in my analysis, concepts and modes of thought and action) become sites at which identity and experience can be negotiated and contested. Genealogy, then, involves looking critically at the taken-for-granted meanings which populate social and political spheres and uncovering their underlying assumptions. This encompasses starting from particular case studies and progressively taking a wider and wider lens, comparing these to other empirical examples to establish general trends, but also attempting to contextualize these in relation to historical lineages and broad institutional, economic, social, political and cultural discourses and structures, paying particular attention to the circulation of power (Stevenson and Cutcliffe 2006: 715). I adopt Foucault’s (1977) view of the genealogical project as a ‘history of the present’, and there has not been scope in my analysis to undertake a detailed longitudinal mapping of change. However, I have tried to indicate, where possible, how and why key themes and perspectives have shifted.

Chapter 2 explores the issue of sexual violence, focusing in particular on the contemporary anti-victim orthodoxy in academia and its relationship with neoliberal rationalities, and how this is set against the rather problematic alliance of radical feminist activism and neoconservative projects of social control. In chapter 3, the power of neoconservative discourse is again examined, particularly in terms of how the centring of the victimized ‘Muslim woman’ within neo-imperial projects has led to a focus on agency and resistance in progressive political and intellectual circles. These two chapters look at fields which are characterized by contestation and dispute: in contrast, chapters 4 and 5 tackle areas where there is a more definite orthodoxy at play. Chapter 4 examines the contemporary sex-radical framework which dominates debates about the sex industry, exploring commonalities with neoliberalism in its emphasis on identity, empowerment and choice. In chapter 5, the discussion tackles the ‘natural’ birth and breastfeeding movements which have emerged in many western countries, asking questions about how these have coincided with neoliberal and neoconservative agendas, sometimes in dubious ways. Throughout, common themes and ideas are highlighted and related back to my over-arching conceptual framework. Bringing all these different issues together, an endeavour which has not been attempted before, yields invaluable insights about the nature of contemporary gender politics.

None of the areas covered in this book is neutral – they are all politically and morally constructed. Furthermore, many of them are characterized by ‘bad science’ residing in frequent claims and counterclaims which are often partial but which also invariably purport to be conclusive. Examining these fields discursively involves an attempt to deconstruct some of the more common or dominant claims and contextualize them more broadly. Such an analysis will not produce the ‘truth’ about whether practices of veiling and/or professions in the sex industry are essentially oppressive or essentially empowering, whether Julian Assange has committed sex crimes or whether breast is really best. Indeed, Shiner (1982) terms Foucault’s genealogical method an ‘antimethod’ for precisely these reasons: because the search for truth and origins is ultimately destined to fail, and because there is no objective, apolitical method which can help it succeed. Instead, my book may give insights into the web of discourses and power relations which constitutes the contemporary politics of the body. I am aware that this may be seen as a ‘truth-telling’ by some, and that the sources from which I have gathered my data – policy, politics, popular culture and the media in the United Kingdom and other western countries – are circumscribed. The discussions I examine will not touch everyone in the West and will be limited in their impact in broader contexts, although policies emanating from these arenas may have considerable international reach. I also realize that, in exploring major frameworks and orthodoxies, there will be many discourses I have missed or perhaps flattened out, as I am sketching with a fairly broad brush. Finally, I should check my own privilege at the outset, as a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle. The analysis I present here, then, cannot be exhaustive or irrefutable: however, the book should be seen as an interpretation of major contemporary debates which may be of interest and provide food for thought.


Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism: Framing the Politics of the Body

This book takes the dominant contemporary economic and political rationalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism as its primary conceptual resource in analysing themes common to a number of different western debates about women’s bodies. While by no means the only discourses in play, these two have achieved enormous political, social and cultural power, to the extent that other perspectives and movements have found themselves on the defensive (Brown 2006), and this can be observed in all the fields explored here. My broad approach to investigating this dynamic can be characterized as a political sociology of the body, both associating with and differentiating itself from the sociological and political modes. The sociology of the body can loosely be described as a sub-discipline concerned with how the body is both material and socially/politically constructed (Turner 1984; Shilling 1993). It covers themes around embodiment, experience, identity, representation and power, and explores how these are shaped by discourse and social structure and refracted by categories such as class, gender, ‘race’, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and age. In contrast, the politics of the body can be understood as the substance and detail of debates about key issues such as the ones covered in this book, as well as others such as abortion, cosmetic surgery, disability and disordered eating. These are often contentious and characterized by claims, counterclaims and controversies, featuring individuals and groups of seemingly diametrically opposed political persuasions. Feminism is regularly implicated or involved, since such debates often pivot around women’s bodies (Weitz 1998), even when focused on issues which also affect men.

Working alongside and drawing much from both these modes of engagement, the political sociological analysis developed in this book asks questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect and construct how we conceptualize embodiment. It also, crucially, attempts to contextualize controversial political debates within a sociological frame. This involves situating them within the social, political, economic and cultural spheres and structures of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, as well as exploring the social construction of the discursive fields themselves. The latter implies a commitment to uncovering whose are the dominant voices and how this reflects and perpetuates existing inequalities based on social categories such as gender, ‘race’ and social class. Furthermore, it raises questions about how the debates themselves might reflect the concerns of the individuals and groups who predominate within them, highlighting important silences and wondering about the potential effects of taking other perspectives into account. In this endeavour, which might be called genealogical (Foucault 1977), I make use of a number of key concepts and theoretical frameworks, which allow me to conceptualize the broad structural and political context of neoliberalism and neoconservatism and provide useful tools for a more intersectional analysis.

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism: the unholy alliance

First of all, my political sociology of the body is framed by the structures and discourses of neoliberal capitalism. In particular, the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist capitalist production has intersected with and informed processes of embodiment in a number of important ways. Fordism, the system of industrial mass production which employed large-scale, low-cost physical/manual labour, used detailed technical divisions of tasks along a moving assembly line (Pietrykowki 1994: 68; Rayner and Easthope 2001; Smith 2008: 180). The Fordist market was dominated by a small number of major producers, resulting in little consumer choice (Rayner and Easthope 2001). In contrast, in a post-Fordist era we have seen an explosion of market-based choices which has come to inform the social construction of identities, as well as the engagements of individuals and groups with the political sphere. The industrial production of goods in the West has made way for a ‘post-industrial’ economy based on services and knowledge (Nettleton 2006: 221). Labour has become more flexible and decentralized and many functions have been outsourced, leading to an international societal division of production which has exacerbated existing inequalities (Waters 1995). There is also a greater emphasis on product differentiation by marketing, packaging and design and the targeting of consumers according to lifestyle, taste and culture. The global economy is now dominated by multinational companies, which have a degree of autonomy from nation-state control, and financial markets which have been a product of the communications revolution (Hall 1988).

The growth of service- and knowledge-based industries has had important effects on the social structure and the formation of identities, contributing to the decline of the Fordist (white, male) manual working class and the ‘feminization’ of the workforce. Theories of an attendant ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Shilling 1993: 114–15; Gill, Henwood and McLean 2005: 39) have intersected with the neoconservative backlash against feminism to threaten many gains for women’s rights and construct a contemporary gender politics which often appears fraught. In general terms, it is now thought that identity no longer derives automatically from one’s position in the matrix of production, leading to a greater emphasis on the body which is shaped to a great extent by consumer culture (Giddens 1991; Bauman 1992). The new service industries also engage the body in different ways, for instance the ‘emotion work’ which requires employees to manage their feelings, body language and expressions in accordance with their employer’s requirements, in order to produce the desired emotional state in customers (Hochschild 1983). Some of the new service industries also have particular physical requirements, usually for women employees (Shilling 1993; Davies 2011).

Although capitalism is not a monolith (Duggan 2003), it can be said that in western neoliberal economies the body has become a symbol of value and identity which is largely performed and developed via the purchase of products (Shilling 1993; Carolan 2005). The drive to consume in order to both express and ‘add value’ to oneself is a key aspect of contemporary consumer culture, which feeds markets that rely upon idealized representations of the body and the elevation of particular prestigious bodily forms through advertising (Shilling 1993: 129). In a context in which consumption is primarily about ‘symbolic value’ rather than ‘use value’ (Rayner and Easthope 2001: 170–1), focused on cultural assets as opposed to merely material ones (Savage et al. 1992: 112), we have seen among the privileged a dramatic growth in spending on beauty, fitness and fashion, a rise in alternative health practices and in more extreme ‘body projects’ (Shilling 1993: 112) such as cosmetic surgeries. These new moralities and practices of consumption are central to neoliberal value systems and can be seen informing many of the debates in this book, evident for instance in prescribed bodily practices which become central to profitable markets, rapidly mainstreaming industries focused on the consumption of sexualized bodies, and most importantly contemporary conceptualizations of ‘choice’ which have been shaped in newly economistic directions.

In a post-Fordist context, the chief contemporary economic and political lexicon in the West is regarded by many as constituted by a coalition between neoliberal and neoconservative rationalities. Neoliberalism has become hegemonic as a system of political and economic organization, while neoconservatism infuses our popular morality and underpins regulatory projects both domestically and overseas (Brown 1995, 2006; Harvey 2005; Fraser 2009). Neoliberalism, which developed first in the United States and then rapidly in Western Europe (Duggan 2003: xi–xii), is premised on the absolute freedom of capitalist markets and trading relationships which was a central tenet of classical liberal thinking, but has cascaded these principles into the social realm with a central assumption that societies function best with a minimum of state intervention (Harvey 2005). The liberalization of the economy (for example, the elimination of price controls, deregulation of capital markets and removal of trade barriers) has shaped social reforms such as the privatization of state-owned services and fiscal austerity informed by the rhetoric of personal responsibility (Boas and Gans-Morse 2009).

Furthermore, as Brown (2006: 691) argues, the ‘market-political’ rationality of neoliberalism has entered into social discourse and begun to structure subjectivities. Indeed, she contends, it now ‘governs the sayable, the intelligible and the truth criteria’ of western culture (Brown 2006: 693). Through channels such as government policy, advertising and popular culture, neoliberalism has become a normative framework, based on the idea of citizens as rational and self-interested economic actors with agency and control over their own lives. Within its architecture political and social problems are converted into market terms, becoming individual issues with consumption-based solutions (Brown 2006: 704). The body is a key site at which this process occurs, a vehicle for the ‘appropriate’ consumption practices which are put forward as a panacea for contemporary social problems (Evans and Riley 2012: 3). Success is measured by individuals’ capacity for self-care via the market, and those who do not achieve their potential are viewed as failures rather than as victims of oppressive social structures. For example, obesity in a neoliberal context is recast as an issue of individual responsibility and lifestyle choice rather than class- and resource-based inequality (Evans and Riley 2012: 11). This, for Brown (2006: 704), is ‘depoliticization on an unprecedented level: the economy is tailored to it, citizenship is organized by it, the media are dominated by it, and the political rationality of neoliberalism frames and endorses it.’

In contrast, neoconservatism is an interventionist political discourse which nevertheless has entered into a productive coalition (or unholy alliance) with its free-market partner. Brown (2006: 691) terms neoconservatism a ‘moral-political rationality’ which is based on traditional gender roles and family structures, the centrality of the church to social life, state-led patriotism including stringent immigration controls, and the defence of national and cultural borders (Brown 2006: 699) which involves a strong and interventionist military state (Norton 2004). This is the product of converging social and political groups and interests: ‘evangelical Christians, Jewish Straussians, avowedly secular Cold Warriors who have made a fetish of the West, conservative feminists1 and other family moralists … random imperialists, and converted liberals and socialists’ (Brown 2006: 696). In neoliberalism and neoconservatism, business and theological models of state power have come together, and the two frameworks are at once hostile and complementary (Brown 2006: 698). They conflict over issues such as state spending, and neoconservative moralism is set against neoliberal nihilism and self-interest. However, they have hidden similarities in their regulation of the social sphere, which neoconservatism approaches directly via morality and policy while neoliberalism belies its free-market rhetoric by attempting to incentivize towards the ‘right’ choices (Brown 2006: 700). The influence of this coalition underpins all the issues covered in this book, and its interactions with feminism and the political left are of particular interest to my analysis. Indeed, its contemporary hegemony sometimes suggests that one cannot reject one element without embracing another: for example, neoconservative engagements with radical feminism over issues such as the sex industry and violence against women have led other feminists and left-wingers to take defensive positions which involve playing into neoliberal preoccupations with individual freedom and personal choice.

Individualization and the postmodern condition

Neoliberalism in particular operates with an individualized model of the self which can be seen as both reflecting and producing changed models of social organization and self-identity. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002: xxi) argue, contemporary society is set upon a form of ‘institutionalized individualism’ whereby institutions, employment structures and basic civil, political and social rights are geared to the individual rather than to the group. This works alongside what they term a ‘disembedding’ of identities, also informed by the decreasing stability of collective categories such as class, gender and family and the collapse of traditional social norms. Contemporary challenges, demands and constraints, ‘from pension rights to insurance protection, from educational grants to tax rates’, constitute an individualist paradigm within which our thinking, planning and acting now takes place (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 2). Giddens (1991) also explores the relationship between self-identity and the institutions of modernity and proposes that we are now engaged in reflexive projects of the self, characterized by introspection, evaluation and alteration, within narratives of actualization and mastery. This shapes the context in which everyone is responsible for constituting themselves as an individual, and in which failure is one’s own fault rather than the result of social inequality and disadvantage (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 3–4): this politics of personal responsibility can be observed in many of the debates in this book.

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim argue that individualization is characteristic of ‘second modernity’, while Giddens terms the contemporary period ‘high modernity’. However, a number of other thinkers claim that we are living in an age of postmodernity, marked by the decline of Enlightenment notions such as truth and freedom and a proliferation of difference in terms of values and identities (Callinicos 1989). For Lyotard (1979: xxiii), postmodernity refers primarily to the condition of knowledge in what he calls ‘the most highly developed societies’, and he interprets it as an incredulity towards ‘metanarratives’ such as Marxism and feminism which purported to explain the truth of social organization and incorporated ideals about how to progress to a more equitable social plane. This has been seen as a reaction to the exclusionary and Othering universalisms of modernist thought (Harvey 1990: 42), and postmodern forms of knowledge incorporate in contrast pluralistic ideas around multiple truths and forms of society, and the principle that ‘all groups have a right to speak for themselves, in their own voice, and have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate’ (Harvey 1990: 48). Postmodern thinking contains a view of power as shifting and nomadic, and as productive rather than repressive (Foucault 1976, 1977). This perspective has informed my analysis as I attempt to explore the relationships between power and knowledge in contemporary debates around the body. However, postmodern ideas are also frequently articulated in the political sphere, often in problematic ways, with academic postmodernism dovetailing with an emphasis on difference, ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity’ in activist fields.

The politics of the Other

In a postmodern and neoliberal context, the dominant form of politics is focused on difference (Duggan 2003): what Nancy Fraser (1995, 2000) has termed the ‘politics of recognition’. This describes the emphasis on identity which dominates post-industrial capitalist societies, with cultural recognition (defined in broad terms) supplanting socio-economic redistribution. The goal of this politics is ‘a difference friendly world, where assimilation to majority or dominant cultural norms is no longer the price of equal respect’ (Fraser and Honneth 2003: 1). It involves appeals for the validation of the distinctive values and perspectives of different groups, for instance on the grounds of ethnicity, culture or sexual orientation, within legal, political, economic, occupational and institutional settings. An example is the contemporary campaign for same-sex marriage in the United States, the United Kingdom and other western countries, defined by Fraser as a form of recognition politics because it is about incorporating sexual diversity into the existing institutional and legal frameworks of society (Fraser and Honneth 2003: 39). The evolution of a politics of recognition is the result of a number of related developments: neoliberal attacks on social egalitarianism, the dramatic failures of the communist bloc, and fears about the viability of state socialism in a globalized world (Fraser 2000). These shape its focus away from the structural, but it has been critiqued for creating a ‘prison of identity politics’ (Shakespeare 2006: 82) which promotes conformism within cultural groups, as well as oppressive forms of communitarianism whereby any critique of other values or cultures is viewed as discriminatory (Fraser 2000).

Such a politics has been particularly attractive within the feminist canon, and Fraser (2009) argues that feminism’s historical politicization of the personal, although initially positive and visionary, has ultimately led to a loss of economic and political critique as neoliberal capitalist political culture and its focus on identity politics has conscripted aspects of feminist thinking (Fraser 1995, 2000, 2009). This reflects the broader turns to identity and ‘affect’ in postmodern academic feminism and ‘third wave’ activism (Blackman and Venn 2010). The politicization of the personal has also become common in the mainstream, influencing an emotionalist and expressivist politics in which social and political judgements are often centred on feeling (MacIntyre 1984; Squire 2001), a result of both the decline of Enlightenment values and the phenomenon of ‘tabloidization’ (Paasonen, Nikunen and Saarenmaa 2007: 7), or the prioritization of the personal in popular culture. This can be seen in self-development and counselling culture, increasing demands for political figures to show emotion, the saturation of popular media with feelings (soap melodrama, reality TV and talk-show theatre), and the way in which social, cultural and political issues are played out through celebrities’ lives. As well as being a new market commodity in neoliberal capitalism (Hochschild 1983, 2000), feelings have become a new political commodity, leading to an ‘expressivism’ (Edwards 2004) which can be seen in debates in which hurt feelings are used as currency. Squire (2001) argues that this can have positive aspects, for instance, in inserting new issues and experiences into culture and creating a move away from individualism in shared experience. However, it can also close down the possibilities for critical intellectual analysis as it reduces debate to a matter of feeling, with structural analysis supplanted by the experience of being a member of an oppressed cultural or social group.

Western engagement with ‘Other’ cultures is often viewed through the lens of Orientalism, which refers to how ‘traditional’ (usually eastern) cultures have been narrated, commodified and appropriated by historical and contemporary forms of colonialism (Said 1978). This is evident in a number of different settings: the academic, which means anyone who teaches, writes about or researches the Orient; the political/artistic, meaning the ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’ in theories, novels, poems and policies; and the discursive, which refers to a discourse which has benefited European culture by ‘setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self’ (Said 1978: 2–3). Orientalism, for Said (1978: 3), is ‘the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism [is] a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’

Understood in a broad sense, forms of Orientalism can be seen in many of the debates in this book, in which neoliberal and neoconservative mentalities and powerful groups and institutions have been able to construct knowledge about social and cultural Others which shapes the formation of subjectivities and produces feelings of failure among the structurally disadvantaged. Paradoxically, also, manifestations of Orientalism can be seen informing much of the answering recognition politics which is currently in circulation, which often romanticizes and homogenizes the Other as part of its focus on difference. In this way contemporary progressive identity politics can become conservative in its effects, showing the influence of neoliberal ideas of difference, apolitically defined, and also sharing characteristics with the neoconservative focus on social Others which either creates homogeneous groups of victims for the purposes of social control or uses the notion of the dangerous Other in the service of regulation. This can be seen in debates around sex work and also gender and Islam, for example, in which essentialized constructions of identity are observed across ideological and political divides.

Feminism as subject matter and analytical resource

In all the debates in this book, the politics of gender intersects with other frameworks, for instance around class, ethnicity, ‘culture’ and sexual orientation. In much of my analysis I have identified a key role for the operation of privilege, in relation to whose voices are heard and who is able to set agendas pertaining to particular issues. I have also raised questions about the potential impact of including alternative voices, often from more disadvantaged social positions, in discussions. I take feminism as my theoretical and political standpoint, but I also acknowledge how mainstream feminism is itself a politics of privilege and explore how it has been used (and misused) in the debates in question. The first key theme is the influence of the neoconservative backlash against feminism and, paradoxically, how aspects of radical feminism have simultaneously been co-opted by neoconservative ‘law and order’ agendas. The second is how neoliberal individualism has stripped the radical and Marxist structural analysis of gender relations of its credibility, while making links with the more individualistic aspects of ‘third wave’, postmodern and postcolonial feminisms. At present, these latter three are the dominant strands of feminism in the political field around women’s bodies, while the gains of liberal feminism are broadly thought to have been made, socialist/Marxist feminisms have gone out of fashion and radical feminism enjoys influence only in spheres which bring it into agreement with the neoconservative establishment.

The marriage between postmodernism and feminism has been a particularly fruitful one, allowing the movement both to challenge claims to ‘objectivity’ in mainstream social science, research and policy focused only on men’s issues and needs (Haraway 1989; Fausto-Sterling 1992; Martin 2001) and to examine its own limitations in terms of the use of fixed, universalist identity categories such as ‘woman’ and claims on this basis to speak for all women (Butler 1999). Feminists have also been particularly attracted to postmodern accounts of agency, which is produced by the subject’s situation inside a matrix of discourses which, through the performative nature of identity, they are capable of beginning to rework from within (Butler 1988, 1999, 2004). Much contemporary feminist theory situates agency in the body and in resistant and radical forms of ‘body work’ (Butler 2004). This includes postcolonial feminism, which has an especial focus on practices of bodily resistance, often reclaiming cultural norms and traditions previously defined as shaped by oppression (Bilge 2010). The ideas of agency and ‘choice’ are important in all the debates covered in this book: however, while acknowledging that there is much to be gained from these concepts, I also draw on critiques of this contemporary orthodoxy as having become, in interaction with neoliberalism, rather voluntarist and individualist (Livia and Hall 1997: 8; Webster 2000: 8), and abstracted from structural determinants (Abu-Lughod 1990; Brickell 2005; Boucher 2006). Furthermore, I attempt to highlight important, if unintentional, convergences between such feminist mainstays and the neoliberal emphasis on ‘personal choice’ and self-invention, which can very quickly turn into a more repressive politics of personal responsibility.

A variety of different strands of feminism, as well as the other theoretical frameworks I have introduced here, has shaped the analysis presented in this book. I contextualize my interpretation of gender within the macro-structures of global capitalism, but while I wish to retain a strong structural critique, I am also indebted to postmodern and postcolonial perspectives for highlighting the weaknesses of over-universalizing frameworks. My analysis is inspired by the work of Yuval-Davis (2006) and others (see also Phoenix 2006), in its attempt to examine the intersectionality of gender with a variety of other aspects of identity and social and economic positionalities, without slipping into an endless variety of apolitical differences. It also attempts to pay attention to the latter half of the binary between recognition and redistribution (Fraser 1995), to acknowledge the value of commonality and solidarity and to allow that there may be issues over which bonds between women may be forged while simultaneously addressing particularities which arise at various intersections (see, for example, Mohanty 2002; Walby, Armstrong and Strid 2012). This book essentially presents a discourse analysis of debates in the political, social and cultural field: as a result, there will be an inevitable loss of complexity in relation to the specificities of personal experience. However, I hope it might provide a broad framework which could inform more micro-level analyses.

The rest of this book will show how the contemporary alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, with its attendant themes, has shaped a variety of issues in the politics of the body. In chapter 2, an analysis of sexual violence politics reveals how the association between radical feminism and neoconservative agendas around crime control has produced a retreat from emphasizing victimhood on the political and academic left, which often draws on strains of neoliberalism. Chapter 3 explores similar trends in relation to gender and Islam, a debate in which the ‘progressive’ focus on cultural difference, agency and resistance can be seen as partially responding to neoconservative Orientalisms which have settled upon women in Muslim-majority societies and communities, but also as reflecting neoliberal individualisms and constructions of ‘rational choice’. In chapter 4, the current dominant sex-radical perspective on the sex industry is shown to manifest similar notions, and it is argued that, in its rejection of the radical feminist convergence with neoconservative agendas, it fails to problematize contemporary sexualized consumer culture and thereby blunts its own radicalism. Chapter 5 tackles the extant orthodoxy around ‘natural’ childbirth and breastfeeding, revealing its resonances with both neoconservative gender essentialism and the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility and, in the process, also questioning its ‘alternative’ appearance. In all four chapters, I trace the relation between the exercise of agency and the operation of privilege and explore how those with economic, social and cultural resources are able to dominate debates in problematic and potentially damaging ways. This broadly constitutes my political sociology of the body.


Sexual Violence and the Politics of Victimhood

The DSK case and the Assange case have brought to the fore the true ugliness of sex negative feminism and man hatred, and the extent to which they made inroads into our culture and society just as insidious as the right-wing propaganda of the Murdochs. They have also shown how those right wing forces can so easily hijack stupid blinkered man haters to the right-wing agenda.

(Craig Murray 2011)