Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Homonationalism and Carceral Feminism

The following is an English-language reaction to Dr. Sarah Schulman's excellent closing speech at Fazendo Gênero 10 in Florianópolis.

Dear Dr. Schulman,

I very much enjoyed your speech at Fazendo Gênero 10 in Florianópolis and was particularly happy to see you bring up the topic of homonationalism, which has pretty much been unknown in Brazil up until now (“Terrorist Assemblages” being unavailable in Portuguese). Like you, I am very much worried about the “familiarization” of the LGBT movement and the increasing alliances sections of it seem to be making with racist, colonialist and nativist tendencies, particularly in Western Europe and North America.

However, I am also concerned about the false dichotomy you seemed to create between the LGBT movement and feminism in your presentation.

In your speech, you describe a LGBT/Queer/Gay movement that is increasingly polarized between homonationalistic groups and those forms of homosexuality which cannot achieve the respectability of “family” and “nation”. Against this, you poise a rather homogenous and curiously blameless feminism. I say “curiously”, because as Jasbir Puar went to some pains to point out in her book, white, “first world” and middle class feminisms are acquiring characteristics that are quite similar to homonationalism.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the LGBT movement is not alone in moving towards “family values” as a way of gaining increased legitimacy for its more privileged members. Here in Brazil, official state feminism has very much gravitated towards the figure of “woman as mother” in many of its most recent initiatives – particularly “family scholarships” (stipends given to poor women to keep their children in school) and our new Maria da Penha law, which qualifies violence towards women as something happening within the context of the domestic spaces of stable family units. While both of these initiatives have had more-or-less positive effects, it’s should be of some concern that feminist initiatives focusing on non-motherly women (particularly attempts to legalize abortion) have become ever more demonized and beyond the pale in Brasília.

Secondly, as Puar, Kristin Bumiller, Roger Lancaster and many others have pointed out, there is an increasingly hegemonic tendency within feminism that is allying itself ever more closely with the neo-liberal carceral state. This brand of feminism has, in particular, been extremely active in militating for a more intensified criminalization of prostitution. It also has been notably silent regarding the increasing use of anti-human trafficking operations and policies to target immigrant women for surveillance and deportation. As Judith Butler has remarked, we are entering an age of increasingly regulatory regimes where the binary between hetero- and homosexuals (and, indeed, men and women) is being replaced by an emphasis on illegitimate and legitimate partnerships. Within this shift, ever-greater numbers of white, first-world feminists have moved towards giving the state enhanced powers to survey and discipline population categories whose forms of sexual exchange are deemed to be unacceptable. While the rhetoric behind this shift relies on a simplistic equation of prostitution with violence towards women, in practice, it often means increased criminalization of certain “suspect” populations – most notably non-white, immigrant, poor and working class populations.

In the United States alone, some 60,000 people a year are arrested on prostitution charges, with the notorious race and class imbalances we’ve come to expect from the U.S. criminal justice system. The current trend among carceral feminists is to push for increased arrests and incarceration, allied with the transformation of women caught up in this system from rights-bearing subjects into what Paul Amar calls “parahumans”: suspects under the control of privatized rescue agencies. Women caught in these nets risk losing their children, jobs, livelihood and places of residence. And, as we’ve seen in so many recent cases (that of Melissa Petro, a school teacher fired for admitting that she had once worked as a prostitute), these women are stigmatized, generally for life, and pushed to the margins of the economy, recreating the general conditions that led many of them to work in the sex industry in the first place.

The main locus of this carceral feminist drive can be found in the U.S. and Western Europe, which are busily exporting the criminalization of prostitution to countries like Brazil in a manner quite reminiscent of early forms of colonialism. As a Brazilian who is well aware of the fact that our country has a thoroughly militarized police force which is responsible for the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Brazilian citizens a year, I am aghast at the naiveté (or is it cynicism?) of a first-world feminism which preaches criminalization as a solution to the problems of prostitution in our country.

Has not the U.S.-fomented drug war been enough? Over the last thirty years, this failed attempt at prohibition has killed hundreds of thousands in Latin America and jailed millions (again mostly poor and non-white) without noticeably affecting the sale or consumption of illegal drugs. Given this, one would think that a feminism that is truly committed to justice and inequality, as you posit, would at the very least be hosting a robust discussion regarding the current drive to prohibit and criminalize the sale of sex. Instead, we are apparently meant to presume that every nation in the world will be able to have the same conditions of social and economic justice as Sweden (where, one notes, the criminalization of prostitution is still stigmatizing and killing women). What is worse, the relative handful of feminists who are criticizing this renewed carceral drive (which is really a form of slut-shaming at its most basic level) are being increasingly stigmatized themselves, often even openly insulted by other feminists as “pimps” and worse.

This is why it came as something of a surprise to hear you cast “feminist values” in such homogenizing, singular and universally positive terms. I was particularly distressed by the following generalization which you made towards the end of your speech:

“[F]eminists take the responsibility to dissipate fear, we do not feed it. We are invested in the uncomfortable but humanizing conversations that help people shift their positions and build lives of authenticity and depth. We do not gang up on people, we do not shut down humanizing processes, and we do not shun.”

I’m sorry, but while this is a stirring affirmation of what you (and I) personally believe about feminist values, it is not correct with regards to feminism, tout court. It is not true of the increasing number of feminists who feel the need to shun, ostracize and exclude sex worker and prostitutes’ rights-oriented feminists from public forums. It is not true of the many feminists who accritically repeat inflated or openly fabricated numbers regarding human trafficking in order to push for tighter border controls and greater policing of immigrant communities. And it is CERTAINLY not true of the feminists who have done everything in their power to starve sex worker activist groups of desperately needed funds and legitimacy.

During the Fazendo Gênero 10 conference, I and my colleagues got an up-close and personal view of a brand of feminism that very much relies on fear-mongering and bullying, shunning, bombastic declarations and feeling threatened as part of its tactics of action. A group of self-proclaimed “radical feminists” attempted to appropriate our table on sex markets and feminisms in order to turn it into a prohibitionist forum, completely ignoring the content of the many excellent papers that were presented by the members of our table. When the organizers (two feminist women and myself) refused to allow them to do this and, instead, invited them to present their concerns and dialogue with us after the papers had been discussed, the group stormed out, insulting all and sundry as “legalists” and “queer macho pimps” (whatever that may mean). Over the next couple of days, the door to our room acquired a series of ever-more offensive home-made “posters”, denouncing the table and its organizers as criminals, patriarchs and pimps. We later discovered that this same group invaded at least one other table (on queer gender), taking the floor for over fifty minutes and refusing to allow other participants to talk.

It is very hard, after experiences like these, to read words which seem to contrast a supposedly fragmented, ever more conservative and homonationalist LGBT movement against a basically morally united feminism, described as universally committed to justice and equality.

I would suggest that one of the key challenges facing feminism today is the adoption of an intersectionalist critique of the world which, by necessity, means understanding that feminism itself can no longer be seen as a morally united political field. While it is true that homonationalism is reframing and fragmenting the LGBT movement along lines of race, class and nation, it is no less true that carceral feminism is accomplishing much the same thing in feminism itself. It is becoming ever more apparent, to me at least, that we are now properly within the post-feminism era – not in the sense that feminism is no longer needed, but in the sense that we cannot pretend that there is a cohesive and central moral position to feminism. Today, to say that one is a feminist is simply no longer enough. 


  1. And for those of you who think I'm exagerating about sex worker rights activists being locked out of feminist conferences...

  2. O! You started writing in English?

    Anyway, another thing brought me here. I recently read a certain fragment of Mundus Novus on Abagond blog, about Tupi, and it something there looked curious. Then i went to read some comment thread on another Abagond post (uh, Africans sold their own people, that was one beautiful comment thread, so to say), and remembered that Thaddeus (and i presume Ana too) is an anthropologist. Brazilian to boot, which is relevant as i will soon show.

    So, why i wrote all this? Because i want to ask y ou about this

    Namely, if you know anything about pre-colonial era Tupi familial relationship?

  3. [Thaddeus posts]

    I've been writing in English since age six and Portuguese since age 16, with varying degrees of competency. ;)

    Unfortunately, I don't know too much about Tupi family habits. The Tupi themselves are a very large and diverse group, with a fair amount of cultural variety. From what I know, it's not like the Mosou in China. the Mosou have been aware of marriage for milennia and choose not to do it, for one thing. As for "incest", all groups have incest taboos, but what categories of people are prohibitted from mating with whom varies from culture to culture.

    what particular information are you looking for? I might be able to ask a Tupi expert.

  4. Yes, sorry, for some reason i thought the latest post was by Ana, and i remembered you saying she does not want to write in English, thus my suprise. Happens all the time :o

    What i am asking about? Hmm... the fragment i mentioned stroke me as something that someone used to European monogamous families could say (and misinterpret) when encountering something different, similar, for example, to Mosuo (or something matrilinear, or something with more clanlike extended family). And since i am poly myself, i got curious whether Vespucci account was indeed misinterpretation or accurate description. I know next to nothing about Tupi, and i guess their culture likely have changed since then (and possibly there are not enough XVIc sources about it) - and as you say they are large and diverse group. I might as well be asking a question like - You are from Sao Paulo? Then you surely must know my friend, Jose! for all i know ;)

    So, i guess i am wanted to ask what kind of relationships were/are typical for Tupi, especially about exclusivity (monogamy or something else), not really about incest.

    But it is only my curiosity, so if you need a casual talk topic for your next meeting with someone who is a Tupi expert, then go ahead :)

    It is somewhat related to what is my impression that anthropological interpretations can be hard to disentangle from our own cultural assumption (i do not know much about it, though).

  5. I'm fairly sure Vespucci was misinterpreting Tupi family habits, yes. Here's a classic monograph on the topic, which you can run through google translate, if you like.

    TL;DR version: the Tupi consider all cousins to be "brothers" and "sisters" and practices cross-cousin marriage (which is very common, btw).

    This means that they tend to marry their father's sister's daughter or mother's brother's daughter, if male. One could see how the confusion could easily come about, with a Tupi saying "I married my sister" when, in fact, he's married his cousin.