Critiquing Intersectionality, Populism and Gender Disembodied of Class: A Marxist Reassertion

June 10, 2013


[In the wake of the horrific gang rape of a student in a moving bus in Delhi on 16 December, 2012, activists and progressive researchers have attempted to understand various aspects of the phenomenon of rape in India, and to formulate strategies to confront and address it.

Kavita Krishnan, a leading activist in the mobilization in Delhi after the gang rape, responded to Hindi columnist, Raj Kishore, and also clarified issues of women’s freedom and capitalism in a January 25 post on Kafila (“Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism“). Krishnan developed her position further in a April 26, 2013 article on Sanhati (“Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggle Against It“). Maya John, activist and scholar, offered a critique of Krishnan’s position in an article posted on May 8, 2013 on Radical Notes (“Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape”). Krishnan responded to John’s critique in a May 28, 2013 article on Sanhati (“Capitalism, Sexual Violence and Sexism”). An editorial of June 10, 2013 on Radical Notes (“Anti-Rape Movement: A Horizon Beyond Legalism and Sociology”) offered a critique of both Krishnan’s and John’s positions.

To highlight the importance of this issue for progressive politics and to facilitate dialogue and discussions among activists and scholars, Sanhati is collecting together and reproducing this whole debate. -Ed]

By Maya John

Following the appearance of my paper, ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’, on Radical Notes, I was confronted with some responses which (I do not hesitate to say) I somewhat expected. These responses consciously misrepresented the crux of my arguments on rape and women’s oppression. In what is perhaps the most convenient way to dismiss a debate, most of my critics – Kavita Krishnan in particular – resorted to endless rhetoric and engaged merely with the descriptive part (i.e. the examples, analogies, etc.) and not the analytic part of my paper. Needless to say, when descriptions and phrases are handpicked, abstracted and separated from the larger analysis, the connections and different layers in the analysis are lost, which in turn leads to the arguments losing their original meaning and appearing absurd. I am compelled to respond not because I am particularly concerned with the crass caricaturing of the arguments made in my paper, or even with the fact that some commentators did not take the trouble to read and honestly engage with the paper before criticizing it. Instead, I feel the need to respond because this is an issue of politics and strategy, and hence, I am committed to expose the true nature of the political stance informing the dismissive write-ups of my critics. For those who have not read the concerned paper, or have selectively read sections from it, I sincerely appeal to you not to depend on Krishnan and others’ assessments of what they think I am arguing, because they will never tell you all that I am saying.

The question, of course, is why have my arguments been received in this manner. Could it possibly be due to the incapacity to comprehend what was argued? No, I do not think so. On the contrary, each of my critics’ responses reflect a politics that is unwilling to admit (and not incapable of understanding) the veracity of the questions raised by me, i.e. with respect to sexual violence, gender inequality and male–female sexuality within capitalism. This is precisely why Krishnan resorted to a shoddy engagement with Prabhat Patnaik in a desperate bid to shift focus and evade engaging with my extensive exposition of the (historical) material basis of women’s oppression, and the influence of class societies on human sexuality. I would say such shadow-boxing and efforts to caricature an opponent’s arguments are typical of college-level debating, and have simply been used to elide over the question of whether what Krishnan and others have been doing or supporting as a strategy is in sync with what she/they pretend that they ‘know’.

The unwillingness of my critics to concretely engage with the concerns raised about the privileged explanatory position attributed to gender power (patriarchy) evacuated of class (dis)content, hints of a typically petty bourgeois stance that is substantively uncomfortable with class analysis. Of course, this discomfort is characteristically concealed behind obfuscating accusations of “crude class analysis”, “pseudo Marxists”, “reductionism”, “disservice to the working class”, etc. Unfortunately, such name calling fails to enrich the ensuing debate, especially when critics do not proceed to make any contribution towards a more ‘sophisticated’ class analysis of the problems confronting us. Indeed, even in this case one’s critics have nothing new to offer except to direct us yet again to the highly questionable and vague intersectionality theory regarding inequality – a point to which I will return shortly. Even Krishnan’s (unsubstantiated) arguments that valourize hyper-femme sexual behaviour and dressing by a section of women in society, are typical of a politics which plays to a particular audience – namely, a middle-class constituency which has internalized notions of beauty and has (wrongly) come to equate individual acts of sexual rebellion with a sexual revolution and hedonism with freedom. By trailing behind this constituency, my critics have failed to honestly engage with the arguments presented in my paper, and for that matter, with any arguments representing the concerns of the working class.

In my paper, I argued that rape must be understood in the context of specific time and space since it was far from an ever-present phenomenon and was instead a product of historically evolved class divided societies. In the process, I showed the following: (i) how rape-free (classless) societies have existed (and in some parts of the world, have continued to exist); (ii) how the emergence of class societies propelled the enslavement of female sexuality within monogamous relations (and later marital formations) that led to the criminalization of other (consensual) forms of sexual relations (see the section ‘A History of Rape’ in the original paper); (iii) how this subjugation of female sexuality and the growing presence of structures of domination (the state, dominant social groups, etc.) facilitated rape in pre-capitalist societies; (iv) how consent as a prerequisite for establishing claims of rape emerged not as a product of the women’s movement but as a product of historical transformations which established the rights and status of the individual over the community; (v) how capitalism has given women’s oppression a new form by transforming the process of production and hence class relations (see the section ‘Capitalism and Women’s Oppression’); and (vi) how a new context of ‘urban rapes’ (a term I was compelled to use in lieu of any better one) has emerged within capitalism, wherein rape and the oppression of women appear as gender crimes, pure and simple.

My larger argument evolving from the last point was that in villages most rapes occur due to the prevalence of caste hierarchy and upper-caste domination, and so in a rural context, it is clearly caste dominance which gives men the power to rape women. However, many urban rapes do not reflect such power dynamics at play. This is because many (not all) urban rapes are being committed not by men with powerful positions in society, but by men who come from the most disempowered and impoverished section of society, i.e. the working class. In fact, it is this urban setting that is (increasingly) making rapes of women from upper segments of society by men of the lower classes possible. The purpose of highlighting the fact that individual working-class men are increasingly involved in many rapes reported from cities was to show how sexist behaviour and aggressive masculinity contains a class (dis)content that emerges from the hostile conditions in which the working class lives and works. In an unnerving manner, Kavita Krishnan responded to my aforementioned observations by stating the following: “…in rural India…many rapes are committed by poor and disempowered men”. Clearly, a statement like this has much wanting. If Krishnan means to say that lower-caste men force themselves on their wives or other lower-caste women then I am forced to remind her that my paper never denies the prevalence of intra-class/intra-community rape, and in fact, explains this tendency as a product of the structuring of human sexuality by class divided societies. However, if by her statement Krishnan means to argue that Dalit men are in the position to rape upper-caste women in villages, then she is dangerously misreading the social reality as it exists – a ‘slippage’ brought on by her tendency to attribute women’s oppression and sexual violence only and simply to gender power that is delinked from or sanitized of class dynamics. Isn’t this why, despite being aware of the brutality of upper-caste domination in our villages, Krishnan can hint that just on the basis of his gender power, a male Dalit agrarian worker can be in the position to rape a rich peasant woman from the dominant caste?

In the same vein, Krishnan and my other critics have introduced gender power as the ‘lonely determinant’ that suffices to explain the new phenomenon of urban rapes discussed above. Simply put, in an urban context when the most socially and economically disempowered men rape (as in the case of the 16 December case), it is assumed by many (including my critics) that it is because these men exercise an engrained patriarchal power over women. According to this position, men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, they see their attacks as justified acts of social control geared towards instilling fear in everyone – especially women – to adhere to traditional norms. This position clearly reads the consequences of sexual assaults into the intent of all rapists involved in sexual crimes.

As argued by me, this privileged explanatory position attributed to gender power comes quite close to the feminist and quasi-feminist analysis of rape and solutions to it, namely, that rape is the result of gender inequality, and hence, the solution to it lies in gender equality. I questioned this feminist/quasi-feminist approach, as it assumes that rapists are (vigilante) men who have consciously taken it upon themselves to use their gender power to subjugate (the class of) women and thereby reaffirm the authority of (the entire class) of men. What other purpose can inform a reified notion of gender power? In contrast to the feminist/quasi-feminist position, my paper showed how there was often no direct relationship between gender inequality and incidents of rape (see the section ‘Going Beyond Feminist Contentions’). More importantly, I criticized this approach for projecting gender power/patriarchy/misogyny/sexism as devoid of class content. I argued that by locking the problem of sexual violence to the question of male–female inequality, Krishnan and others were unnecessarily downplaying, or rather, evading the (class) inequalities which breed sexism and thereby create the possibilities for rape. Here it is perhaps best to quote Krishnan, who claims that “rape is not an expression of lust for women [as if lust itself cannot be patriarchal!]…rape is an assertion of patriarchal power, not sexual desire” [emphasis added –again it is assumed that sexual desire cannot be patriarchal]. By this statement Krishnan clearly establishes gender/patriarchal power as the ‘lonely’ determinant in sexual violence. Furthermore, by shunning the role played by sexual desire, it seems she ends up reducing sexual desire to a mere biological phenomenon, as is clearly indicated in her claim that it is not determined by capitalism and patriarchy. My question then to Krishnan and others is this: how can they make this categorical separation between lust/sexual desire and patriarchy and eschew the fact that lust itself can be manufactured in patriarchal ways by class stratification and its consequences? In other words, what is the source of sexual desire if it is autonomous from patriarchy, and capitalism is denied of having any real influence on it?

Indeed, in the effort to downplay the role of class inequalities, feminists and now Krishnan have come to project a class-sanitized understanding of women’s oppression and sexual violence that easily fits with middle-class men and women’s notions of such oppression. Quite frankly, Krishnan and others’ efforts to sterilize gender into a gender-only-form appeases this segment of urban society, for it does not push the middle class into an uncomfortable position of accepting its own complicity in maintaining class inequalities that create possibilities for sexual violence. Riding the wave of middle-class discontent and projecting women’s oppression as devoid of class, activists like Krishnan have emerged as the ‘ideologues’ for an anti-rape campaign, which for the first time seeks to fight gender power or patriarchy as a separate and distinct axis of power, and hence stands in contrast to earlier anti-rape agitations in which gender power was rarely abstracted from prevailing structures of power/oppression that fuelled sexual violence.

It should be quite obvious from the discussion above that the strategy and tactics adopted by Krishnan and others reflect à la feminist position which assumes the existence of a general women’s question based on the parcellization of society into the class of men and the class of women, irrespective of class divisions between women. Importantly, Marxism, which emerged from the experiences of working-class struggles, has always contested such assumptions about generality. According to Marxist class analysis, capitalism created a distinct ‘women’ question by unleashing new levels and a new form of oppression on women (often by remoulding and rearticulating older forms and contexts of oppression). It did so by creating a ‘non-economic’ private sphere in opposition to an ‘economic’ public sphere – a process which unfolded to push women into subordinate economic and vulnerable social positions. Furthermore, in Marxism class is a social position which subsumes other identities (like gender, race, nationality, etc.) within it, which is why each such identity is conjoined with class interests of the respective classes it falls within. Hence, Marxism or working-class politics has always argued that gender equality means different things for different classes. By extension this means that there is no general women’s question, and that each class has its own women’s question.

What is then the most troubling aspect of Krishnan and others’ quasi-feminist position is its class-eliding understanding of women’s oppression, and the fact that such a position allows them to project middle-class particularism as a universalism for all women – a conflation that is achieved through their so-called intersectionality theory. In the angst of not being purged as a reductionist, but also compelled to maintain some proximity with the radical critique of feminism’s class, caste, race, etc.-eliding politics, Krishnan and others have resorted to the theory/perspective of intersectionality. There are, of course, huge problems with their use of intersectionality, as well as in the overall theory of intersectionality itself. To begin with, devoid of the notion of ontology of social positions, the theory of intersectionality is perhaps one of the vaguest concepts floated by social scientists. An uncritical absorption of this theoretical eclecticism breeds political opportunism, and clearly compromises the revolutionary activist’s understanding of the problems confronting society. To add to this problem is Krishnan’s own lack of clarity and consistency when it comes to using this theory. Considering her earlier writings and her party’s mass organizations’ leaflets and positions, it seems that, in order to absolve herself of the charge of reductionism, Krishnan has taken recourse in intersectionality, and that too by paying this theory a mere lip-service – a point which I elucidate in greater detail below.

Judging from what Krishnan knows, writes, and what she propagates as a goal and action, it gradually becomes clear that for her, intersectionality simply means intersectionality of oppression. Through this approach, Krishnan seeks to explain certain intra-categorical complexities (like acute differences of position within those clubbed together as a category) while speaking of a general oppression of women. As a consequence, intersectionality has allowed Krishnan and others to engage with the issue of class and other social positioning by simply adding to the list of victims and consolidating the category of ‘women’. In the process, a grand list of the different kinds of oppressed women emerges – a list through which everyone from the sexually harassed career woman, to the terrorized Kashmiri woman, to the imprisoned female activist like Soni Sori, to the abused housewife, to the emaciated working-class woman and the gang-raped tribal girl are accounted for. Of course, the broadening and consolidating of the category of ‘women’ in such a manner means that an upper-class woman can be placed on the same platform as her maid, that a woman CEO is in an equivalent position to the female factory workers she hires and fires at will, and that Sonia Gandhi is equal to a tribal woman protesting against land acquisition by Posco.

The specific problem then with Krishnan’s theory of intersectionality is that it conceals more than it reveals about how there is an interlocking of oppression. By flattening the ontology of women’s position in our current society, i.e. by downplaying the obvious class-based and other distinctions between women, Krishnan has failed to account for the fact that in the given chain of oppression, often one’s loss is another’s benefit. To bring home this point, I again refer to the relationship shared between professional middle-class women and their domestic ‘helps’ – an important example discussed in my paper to show how neither can exist without the other, and how the ‘humanization’ of the middle-class couple (encompassed in the freedom of the middle-class woman to step out of domestic slavery) is the dehumanization of the overworked working-class woman (as the ‘bai’) and her relationship with her man and children. In this way, Krishnan can be seen as merely adding to the list of victims so as to merely account for a difference in the degree of oppression faced, and not to explain the power relations that constitute/contribute to this difference.

As a result, in Krishnan’s intersectionality theory, differences stemming from class, caste, tribe, etc. become mere points in the plane of gender, which reproduces the notion of a unitary category of women with a universal claim of gender oppression. This unitary category of women and its universalizing claim is what my paper questioned by exposing how middle-class women’s particular interests were being wrongly projected as the general interest of all women. By engaging with the class dynamics involved in women’s oppression, my paper also exposed that Krishnan and others’ views represent nothing but a selective use of the intersectionality theory itself. I wish to state this fact again and in more direct terms. It is worth noting that in Krishnan’s analysis, upper-class women can claim gender oppression disembodied, mind you, of class. Now these women as ‘victims’ of their class bias can claim such an approach. Since upper-class women do not share class exploitation and its concomitant forms of oppression with working-class women, they never comprehend gender oppression in class terms but simply in terms of gender inequality. They similarly explain rapes (of both working-class and upper-class women) as an expression of gender power devoid of any class (dis)content – a position they are bound to take since its denial would amount to accepting their own (class’s) complicity in the economic exploitation and sexual oppression of the lower classes. However, the question is should Krishnan merely echo their (mis)conception?

Likewise, just as upper-class women are sanitized of class in Krishnan’s intersectionality theory, working-class men come to embody gender but are disembodied of class. She achieves this by emphatically shunning the far-reaching impact class inequalities have on working-class men. In other words, according to Krishnan’s intersectionality, what happens to rich women, and what working-class men do/feel are simply the result of patriarchy/misogyny and have nothing to do with class dynamics. To quote Krishnan from her 25 January 2013 article, “[t]he patriarchal gaze teaches us all to see and judge women on the basis of their sexualized bodies”. Indeed Kavita, where is the supposed intersectionality in an approach that removes class altogether and talks only of an (abstract) patriarchal gaze?

In sharp contrast to Krishnan’s ‘intersectionality’, I argued that upper-class women while oppressed by gender (due to their segmented status within their class) are also privileged in class terms, and hence, complicit in maintaining and even furthering class distinctions. It was precisely in this regard that I identified hyper-femme dressing as, both, a compromise made by upper-class women with men of their class, and an act of complicity which creates conditions for the oppression and exploitation (even rape) of lower-class women by lower-class men and upper-class men.

Of course, while critiquing me, Krishnan has fleetingly conceded by stating something as vague and non-committal as “working-class masculinities may [emphasis added] contend with insecurities specific to its class” – a statement which means nothing as Krishnan’s overall analysis remains unchanged. What such an approach does is to allow people like Krishnan to introduce class as a mere sociological category in their analysis. Class is then only allowed an entry to explain hyper-oppression of some women. That this mapping of hyper-oppression never goes on to show how some women are complicit in other women’s hyper-oppression, is something Krishnan and others would rather leave unaddressed. In this regard, through its heuristic use of class, intersectionality (in particular Krishnan’s ‘intersectionality’) simply disembodies class of gender and reduces it to a flat economistic/worker-ist category.

This approach to class stands in sharp opposition to the use of class in Marxist class analysis, wherein class is situated at the split in the social–relational level and is attributed a collective (inclusive of both the male and female segments) objective interest vis-à-vis another. Thus, contrary to popular accusations, Marxist class analysis does not ‘reduce’ everything to class, but explains how other social positions are subsumed within class in the process of attaining the particular form of their respective articulation. By wrongly shunning the aforementioned form of class analysis for ‘intersectionality’, Krishnan and others have: (i) disembodied class of gender, and (ii) disembodied women of class; thus introducing a general category of ‘women’ based on an absolutely flat ontology of women’s variegated position. What is then concealed in the process is the important fact that women of the upper classes are far closer in material conditions and opportunities to men of their class than they are to working-class women, tribal women, Dalit women, etc. It is, of course, this membership to a class that explains why (patriarchal/sexist) upper-class men come to share a commonality of interests with upper-class women, and have taken to the streets against rape – even amidst slogans against patriarchy (!) That many such upper-class men can be seen fighting rape does not mean, of course, that they actually come to fight patriarchy, for we know that even rapists can fight against the rape of their mothers/sisters/wives by other men.

Having shown the grave problems with my critics’ intersectionist approach, I proceed to reiterate how I explained the connection between women’s oppression and class stratification. Following Marxist class analysis, I worked with a theory of class that was not flat or economistic in its approach but which took into account the segments (men and women) within it. It is in tune with this approach that I explained how capitalism has created a distinct women’s question, albeit differently for different classes. In the process I refrained from reducing class to a mere “ism”, i.e. to one of the many positions to be simply fitted into the ‘larger’ category of ‘women’ in order to explain certain differences within the category of ‘women’. Hence, I can at the most be accused of shunning a non-Marxist theoretical manoeuvre, i.e. intersectionality, in order to pursue class analysis which strives to explain the problem of sexual violence from the perspective of the class interests of the working class. Since the working class includes both men and women, I argued that the (social, economic and sexual) emancipation of one half of the class was impossible without the emancipation of the other half. By pointing this out, I cannot understand how one can be accused of having “internalized the notion of masculine sexuality” or of “mak[ing] respectable the sexist excuses for rape”?! Clearly, if one becomes sexist by making sexual violence an issue of class exploitation and a collective issue of the working class, then I humbly request my critics to search for a better term to explain my deviance.

I suppose it is difficult for many to come to terms with the essential fact that the sexuality question is not simply about overcoming sexual oppression brought on by aggressive masculinity (as if we are merely fighting a bad habit out there), but is ultimately connected intrinsically to the mechanism through which class divided societies function. To show how the sexuality question was connected to prevailing class inequalities, I argued that the capitalist system was creating formidable conditions of vulnerability as well as of culpability when it came to rape. The argument was relatively straightforward and far from “elitist” as claimed by Krishnan and others. Drawing on the highly exploitative conditions of the working class, I argued that it was working-class women and children who become the easiest victims of rape, sexual abuse, etc., committed by working-class and upper-class men. By the same logic, I argued that since class stratification plays an important role in structuring vulnerability, it also plays an important role in structuring culpability in matters of sexual violence. And so my basic contention was that it is not just gender power or misogyny, but also the lack of class power (which nurtures sexism and a keen sense of sexual inequalities vis-à-vis the upper classes), that plays a role in sexual assaults committed by individual working-class men. It was in this light that I explained how one of the ways in which individual male workers (not the class) responded to stark sexual inequalities was by raping women/children in vulnerable conditions. I, of course, also mentioned other ways in which individual male workers respond to their sexual inequities vis-à-vis other classes, i.e. their indulgence in pornography, having consensual yet bad sex in which sexual pleasure becomes detached from the person-in-the-body (a practice which paves the way for possibilities of rape by reducing women to mere bodies and by inculcating the tendency in men to pay little regard to the well-being of the woman), etc. It was by highlighting the sexual inequalities felt by individual working-class men that one brought out the issue of culpability and opened it up for debate.

By doing so, my effort was precisely this: not to absolve individual rapist male workers (for rape can never be justified), but to simultaneously attribute their culpability to the brutal exploitation, inequalities and dehumanization they face within the capitalist socio-economic structure. Indeed, just like the ardently defended position (taken by most progressives) which attributes many crimes by the poor and oppressed not simply to an act of poor judgment by these agents of the crime but more to the conditions/circumstances that pushed them towards criminal activity, I made a case for engaging with the concrete circumstances that create rapists from within male workers. Obviously, Krishnan and others missed the point. Influenced by the Krishnan-kind of intersectionality, which sees capitalism and patriarchy as two separate (co-existing) systems of oppression that intersect (a position which smacks of none other than the dual systems theory), my critics tend to attribute victimhood to the capitalist system and culpability to the patriarchal system. So while they themselves, hesitatingly attribute the tendency of women becoming victims of sexual violence to capitalism, they adamantly refuse to admit that the same capitalism and resulting organization of social relationships contribute towards making a large section of men rapists. Apparently, when it comes to rapists, my critics would just project them as products of patriarchy; misogyny; etc., and not at all of capitalism – a position that completely absolves intensive class exploitation of its decisive role in sexual violence.

Of course, there is a big difference in taking a position that refuses to absolve class exploitation of this role, and in a position that justifies rape. To conflate the two (as my critics have done) is like accusing a doctor, who highlights the connection between a patient’s heart disease and his/her highly stressful lifestyle, of justifying and legitimizing the illness of the patient. Of course, when I took the effort to expose the role of dehumanizing conditions that create the possibilities for many working-class men to rape, it was not because of a supposed class hatred for the class, or because I wished to “amplify” an existing phobia against migrant labour. Instead, the effort was made because one realizes that while the working class (formed and informed by a collective interest) exercises a revolutionary potential, individual workers often succumb to individuated, non-political forms of action. And since, workers constitute the largest section of our society today, it has become imperative to explain how and why an increasing number of rapists and victims have been emerging from within this segment of society.

In such a context, I find it shocking that many of my critics fail to see a tangible working-class issue emerging from the problem of sexual violence. Would they rather live in oblivion of this obvious fact and allow the state and the right-wing to continue floating hate campaigns against migrant workers, or would they rather address the issue directly, thereby capturing the debate in a manner which brings the focus to the brutal exploitation and dehumanizing of the majority in our society. The way things have played themselves out since the anti-rape protests broke out after 16 December, has compelled many like me to question whether the Left is not rendering its constituency, i.e. the working class, leaderless by blindly internalizing quasi-feminist positions on rape and positing gender equality as a solution to sexual violence (for more elucidation of this point, see the section ‘Going Beyond Feminist Contentions’ in the original paper).

I argued that by rendering its constituency leaderless in this matter, the Left was allowing its constituency to become fodder for the right-wing. By stating this simple fact, I became for my critics, comparable to the right-wing itself! Of course, I never argued that the right-wing have got it right, but simply that they know whose discontent can be preyed upon as their discourse quite easily touches a raw nerve amongst the majority who are disoriented by prevailing socio-economic inequalities and by the hedonism of the upper classes. We know for a fact that the right-wing uses a reified notion of modern culture detached from the larger (class) structure of society to explain prevailing problems in society. This reified notion of culture conveniently allows them to attribute these problems to more ‘external’ factors (like the ‘ruination of traditional culture’, ‘westernization’, ‘consumerism’, ‘aping the west’, etc.) than to the internal functioning of society. I do not prescribe to their reified notion of culture, as reflected in my analysis of rape itself, and so, unless my critics have come up with a new definition of right-wing – namely, that the right-wing connects discontent to the issue of class exploitation, speaks of dehumanization, exposes wage slavery, identifies marital rape as a living reality, talks of the abolition of family, envisions a world beyond capitalism, and expresses the need to herald a sexual revolution to free enslaved sexuality rather than a sexual rebellion and hedonism enjoyed by a small section of society – there is no way I can be labelled a right-winger.

Moving on to my “orifice theory”, as Krishnan calls it, I would like to begin by clarifying a simple fact, namely, that I have not abstracted violated orifices of their gender. Contrary to what my critics would have readers believe, my point was relatively simple in that it showed how rapists (and not me, as advocated by Krishnan) reduced the personality of their victim to a mere orifice that could be consumed, violated, brutalized, etc. I explained this by drawing attention to an undeniable fact that rapists’ victims also include children. We all know that often, apart from adult women, rapists have targeted unsuspecting children. Considering this and especially the fact that half of the victims of child sexual abuse are boys (so men rape men), it becomes evident that sexual violence is not gender pure or driven merely by patriarchy, and so, devoid of class or any other dynamics.

This apart, my paper did explain why it was women who were the highest victims of rape. Here, one argued that more than just their gender, women became susceptible to rape because the majority of women (i.e. working class women) are vulnerably positioned in society and therefore easily exploitable, along with, of course, young children. Having said this, there are two clarifications I feel I must make on the issue of urban rapes. For one, I would like to highlight the fact that my critics are reading too much gender, or rather only gender, into the brutality involved in many of these rapes. I say this because the brutality involved in these rapes represents the rapists’ concerted efforts to erase evidence of their crime by fatally assaulting their victims. In other words, these rapists resort to brutality in order to do away with their victims rather than consciously send out a larger message to women in society to stay within lakshamanrekhas (though unintentionally their acts trigger such responses in women). I also make it a point to reassert that when I spoke of rapes involving middle-class women and working-class men, I did not divest the rape of gender power or misogyny as Krishnan would have it. What I actually did was to bring out the fact that “…sexual, economic and social inequalities bred by class stratification have the capacity…to provoke individuated, non-political and sexist [emphasis added] forms of reaction…” from individual working-class men (see the section ‘Class and its Discontent’, of the original paper). By this I meant that neither gender/misogyny nor class are to be found as a lonely instance, i.e. neither exists in a form that is drained of the other. Indeed Kavita, if I was so blind to the gendered aspect of class hatred that is embodied in individual male workers, then why would I highlight that individuated forms of workers’ actions are sexist in nature?

This brings me to a set of arguments that are broadly connected to the question of agency of men and women in sexual acts. One of these arguments made by some of my critics is that working-class women are not raping men despite facing greater sexual repression. Supposedly this argument invalidates my contention about the tendency in individual working-class men to rape due to their socio-economic exploitation and concomitant sexual repression. Apart from coming across as an extremely imprudent formulation, such an argument reflects a careless reading of a sizeable section of my paper which traces the historical process through which female sexuality developed in relation to male sexuality. I do not wish to go into the details and so request my critics to recall that in my paper I discussed the predictable results of a hypothetical survey. What the survey tried to show is that because the average male and female sexuality have historically been structured differently, the question of women raping men is nearly impossible. To elucidate: even if a woman decides to go out and rape a man, the probability that when she approaches a man (for the assault) he will refuse the sexual act, is minimal. Indeed, the sexual act will immediately become consensual, for the historical trajectory of the development of male sexuality shows that men are not culturally and socially conditioned in a manner which leads them to reject sex with the same frequency and for the same reasons as women do.

To prevent any possible confusion about men and women’s approach to sex (or basically, the issue of consent), I request my critics and other readers to carefully read the sections that bring out the complexities (and historical process) involved in the issue of consent (see the section ‘A History of Rape’). Having said this, what is important to note is that there are some women who do not reject sex like most woman do, and are hence, open to approaching men for, what we can identify as, casual sex. Of course, this casual sex cannot be experienced or understood as rape (neither by the woman nor the man involved in the act). Nevertheless, such sexual behaviour in a woman is usually perceived by the larger peer group, acquaintances, etc. as ‘loose’ or ‘slutty’ behaviour. Given then the way male–female sexuality has been structured over time by class divided societies, women cannot rape men in most circumstances, and can, at the most, indulge in casual sex. The negative impact of such sex on these women’s lives is also something my paper discussed at length, along with the fact that these women are not simply victims because –informed by a heightened sense of bourgeois individualism and egoism which is fostered by ruling bourgeois ideology – they too take advantage of/cheat on/manipulate sexual partners (see the section ‘Internalizing the Male Gaze’).

In addition to the aforementioned argument on the question of agency, my critics (Shuddhabrata Sengupta, in particular) have also argued that because not all (working class) men turn to rape, the decision to rape or not to rape is basically about (consciously) taking an ethical position, whereby (only) some misogynist men fail to act ethically while the majority do. I cannot resist the temptation of pointing out the fact that such an approach is highly idealist and smacks of quasi-Kantian notions of ethics, according to which a person can act ethically autonomously of the conditions surrounding him/her. In fact, Sengupta claimed that even capitalism is incapable of breaching this autonomy of the individual’s ethicality. I am presuming this critic would say the same for patriarchy. This means that sexist behaviour is a malaise which miraculously some men are capable of transcending due to their autonomously constituted Kantian ethical subjectivity, while the majority of men fail to exercise such autonomy, and thus warrant criminalization (in the form of “eternal imprisonment” and “confinement in solitude”) so that they “reflect on the violence that they have committed”.

However, the problem of rape is not about taking or failing to take an ethical position. If it were so simple, then all one has to do is to criminalize all those who do not toe the line – a position my critics come quite close to espousing when they write off the role played by socio-economic conditions in the creation of victims as well as rapists, thereby reducing the struggle against rape to a mere struggle for legal reform, higher conviction rates, ‘gender sensitive’ mindsets, more sensitive governance, etc. Instead, rape is a problem that stems from the prevalence of a socio-economic system that dehumanizes the majority and moulds human sexuality into exploitative (anti-women) forms, thereby preventing sexual ethics from becoming viable for the majority. Simply put, can we resolve anything by working with an abstract, reified notion of ethics which assumes that one can still be in the position to think about another’s interests or needs, even when one’s own interests lie unfulfilled or appear unfulfilled? Undoubtedly, doing the right (gender sensitive) thing has become almost an exception than the rule. It has become a gesture/approach which does not organically or automatically stem from the circumstances in which one lives and breathes, but which has to be inculcated or learnt separately through opportunities provided by moments that challenge the larger circumstances.

Moving on, I have also been accused of wantonly denying working-class men any agency by projecting them as victims of their circumstances – something which I have been able to do by allegedly denying the presence of rapists within other classes. I have already highlighted above the problem with a supposedly intersectionist position that ignores the connection between culpability and the concrete socio-economic conditions which nurture it. Nonetheless, I would like to clarify a few things. Firstly, my argument was never so simple that if men are deprived of sex, they would rape. Just as one is critical of quasi-Kantian sexual ethics, one is also critical of biological (hormone-related) or behaviorist (stimulus-response/demand-supply) kind explanations for rape. In actual terms, my argument was that capitalism has created a sexual crisis for the majority (i.e. the working class) through its brutal process of surplus extraction, the concomitant loss of time and energy, and through the particular form in which it structures human sexuality. Far from seeing sex (and sexual desire) as a natural phenomenon existing in a primeval form (for sexuality is always and already structured by the dynamics of class societies), my engagement with sexual behaviour within our capitalist society showed how sexed-up forms of sexual desire and sexual expressions were created by capital through its beauty, fashion, porn and larger entertainment and media industry. Bombarded by this, otherwise, artificially created sexual desire, yet materially positioned in a way that prevents them from indulging in concomitant forms of sexual activity, working-class men are imbued with a strong sense of being denied equal sexual access/enjoyment. This is precisely why rapists can rape despite some of them having active sexual partners – the logic being that they are ‘not getting sex’ in the form made desirable by capitalism. It is then the artificially created sense of deprivation/anxiety/dissatisfaction that often facilitates the rape of vulnerable women and children by working-class men who draw on this vulnerability and the impunity offered by circumstances to gratify their sexual needs.

Secondly, in this matter I wish to clarify that I did not deny the existence of rapist men within other classes. Though the focus of my paper was not to explain the presence of numerous individuals amidst the upper classes, who have developed depraved fantasies which they realize through paedophilia, rape, etc., my paper did show the following: (i) how certain sexual behaviour and desires inculcated by capitalism are conducive for exploitative sexual relations even within the middle class, (ii) how capitalism creates certain socio-economic vulnerabilities that enable middle-class men to sexually exploit their partners and/or to rape them as well as working-class women, (iii) that despite growing equality between the sexes within each class, the persistence of class divisions will continue to create the possibility for upper-class men to sexually assault women from lower classes, and (iv) that the trapping of working-class women in positions of economic, social, and hence, sexual vulnerability by our given socio-economic structure has created for the female sex, a formidable image of subjugation—an image that returns to haunt even women from non-working class backgrounds. The last two points were argued to show how the prevalence of class divisions is crucial in determining whether women’s oppression will persist and the form this oppression will take.

Sadly, Krishnan and others have failed to understand my arguments on the sexual behaviour of different classes. Moreover, by misreading Engels’ observation on the relationship between working-class men and women, Krishnan has taken it upon herself to valourize sexual relations as they exist today between men and women of the working class. Here one would like to remind Krishnan of the fact that Engels reflected on the possibility and not the actuality of more egalitarian men–women relations within the working class. I could, of course, quote numerous instances from Marx’s Capital, Engels’ Conditions of the English Working-Class and Lenin’s dialogues with Clara Zetkin that show how they never valourized working-class culture and lives, but actually argued that the working class needed a new future/conditions so as to realize its humanity. However, I deem it unnecessary to quote them as I do not wish to bog down my readers. I would, thus, like to caution Krishnan to take a more grounded and less romanticized position on what is going on behind the closed ‘bedroom’ doors of working-class families/couples. I request her to reconsider her position on the matter and to seriously engage with the fact that the debilitating life pattern of working-class men and women is leading to the convergence of society’s most frustrated and sexed up men on the one hand, and on the other, society’s most vulnerable and dependent women and children, i.e. working-class women and children.

It is also worth noting that Krishnan and others have easily labelled my assessments as “elitist” by conveniently eliding over my criticism of typical middle-class sexual relations. Strangely, I have been accused of attributing fulfilling sex and true love (based on mutuality) only to middle-class men and women, whereas I have actually contestedargued that such rarely exists even within the middle class. Again, I would not like to repeat the details. All that I would like to clarify here is that contrary to what Krishnan and others will have you believe, my paper consciously highlightedunderscored the tendency of bad (consensual) sex (and sometimes even rape) to prevail within the upper classes (see the section ‘Bourgeois Law, Rape and the Importance of Intermediate Demands’). The paper also went on to argue that such sexual encounters within the upper classes were usually concealed behind the garb of ‘sexual adventurism’, ‘metrosexual’ behaviour, ‘keeping the marriage intact’, etc. – all of which were representative of practices that disempowered women and allowed for exploitation of their sexuality.

In this regard, my larger argument was that (human) sexuality is itself enslaved, and that capitalism does not create conditions for a sexual revolution but for a sexual rebellion by some while preventing the majority from exploring their sexuality. It was in this context, that the paper highlighted how the most debilitating repercussion of the capitalist system on women’s sexuality is the co-option of women into the biased, sexist envisioning of their sexuality, as well as their growing participation in furthering their own and other women’s oppression. As a consequence, one came to question Krishnan and others for propagating a politics that defended the notion of hyper-femme sexuality. Here I would say that the tendency for my critics to shy away from any real scrutiny of the existing form of sexual relations seems largely due to the fact that Krishnan and others equate any criticism of capitalism (and its far-reaching social effects) as slipping into right-wing (moralistic) critiquing of modern society.

Again, one would request one’s critics to be more wary of this stance as it hints of a defensiveness that is more informed by populism which has pushed the independent proletarian voice to the fringes. The problem then with such populism is that it conflates demands that legitimize hyper-femme behaviour of upper-class women with tangible working-class demands. Hence, the “freedom of a woman to access public spaces at any time of the day or night” is attached to a rider – “irrespective of what she wears”. While the first part of this demand is representative of a long-standing (proletarian and democratic) one that facilitates greater employment of working-class women (and women at large), the second part of the demand belongs to a domain of politics that is not representative of the working class. This is because it represents not so much a “freedom” to wear “anything”, but the “freedom” to wear the “in things”, i.e. clothes/accessories which the average working-class woman and even a large section of middle-class women cannot even afford. Truly, it is worth noting that many of our large cities have witnessed the emergence of a new middle-class formation that has been facilitated by middle-class youth migrating to these cities for education and employment and distancing themselves from family and community surveillance. One of the consequences of this urban migration has been the development of rampant sexualization (in terms of behaviour, dressing, etc.) of a particular section of this middle-class youth. And so while the average middle-class woman is burdened by discipline/surveillance/control imposed on her sexual freedom, such disciplining has become negotiable (and has consequently been relaxed) for some (if not all) middle-class women moving to big cities.

Understandably then, I continue to defend my position as I see nothing empowering or anti-systemic in women – most of whom belong to the socially and economically privileged sections of society – dressing/behaving in hyper-femme ways. I reiterate that the problem with such hyper-femme behaviour (including slutwalks) is not simply that it embodies/enacts a sexual role which is based on the objectification of (specific portions of) the woman’s body, but that it represents the efforts of (upper-class) women to outbid the larger body of women in looking ‘attractive’. I realized that this argument required elucidation, which is why I introduced the Marxist category of comprador classes that best encapsulates the kind of compromise involved, and which can also explain the anti-working class character of such a compromise.

In my paper I argued that upper-class women who indulge in such hyper-femme behaviour should be seen as comprador women. This means that these women’s interests seek actualization in alliance with the interests of sexist men who find women desirable only in particular form. Obviously then, these women’s interests stand in opposition to the interests of the larger body of women. Indeed, dressing in hyper-femme ways by upper-class women is a class-informed act/practice which is used to gain the privileges accrued to men of their class, but which also leads to these women trapping themselves in conditions that push/reproduce them into a segmented status within their class. More importantly, by entrapping themselves in roles of patriarchal feminity, these upper-class women also further the oppression of working-class women. How and why does this happen? This is because by drawing on hyper-femme behaviour/dressing in order to attract men of their own class, upper-class women are simply attempting to outbid other women (of their own class and from other classes) in the game of looking beautiful and desirable. This is a fact highlighted by many women activists, including certain introspecting feminist ideologues like Sheila Jeffreys, who have criticized the disempowerment brought on by women from affluent sections of society when they resort to patriarchal feminity under the garb of “freedom of choice”. Of course, my critics have unhesitatingly accused me of being “patriarchal” and “misogynist” in asserting this position, but can they say the same for all those, including Jeffreys and other feminist ideologues? I should think not.

It goes without saying that Krishnan and others can begin to comprehend what all is at stake only if they stop reducing the skirt to a mere fetish. The skirt (symbolic of hyper-feminity) is more than an article of clothing. It is an act of being in/belonging to a class which is expressed as or articulated through the form known as ‘woman’. This is a fact which does not go unnoticed in society, and women activists are often confronted with ordinary men and women’s assessments in this regard. These assessments anger us at first, and we argue back. However, do such views merely represent internalization of patriarchal values, or do they also reflect a strong sense of class distinctions? I do believe such assessments are also expressions of the emotional politics of class, which is why the keen sense of the fact that the more revealing the clothes and the more hedonistic the lifestyle, the higher the class position of its practitioners.

Of course, in the process of being in a class, practitioners of hyper-feminity do not pressurize the (patriarchal) society to introspect about its treatment of women, and instead, end up pressurizing other women of doing (or at least wanting to do) the same if they do not want to be shunned by existing partners, or if they want to attract ‘better’ partners. Thus, the skirt is never just a skirt. Women in skirts are bearers of certain class markers, and somewhere – not directly – are complicit in nurturing the conditions which contribute towards various forms of women’s oppression, including sexual assaults on the most vulnerable of women (to whom my earlier paper referred to as women in burkhas and ghungats).

In this regard, women activists like Krishnan are wrongly interpreting slutwalks as an “angry protest against rape culture that brands survivors as ‘sluts’ who ‘asked for it’”. More than protest, such activities reflect a knee-jerk reaction by upper-class women to the inequalities they feel vis-à-vis men of their class, and to the typical responses emerging from lower-class men and women who perceive these women’s live styles, sexual life, etc. as ‘licentious’ and therefore ‘inviting’ a backlash. More importantly, they amount to activities which reassert markers of class position as they continue to remain distanced from the ways in which the majority of women (i.e. working-class women) comprehend their oppression, as well as from the ways in which the majority of women want to fight back. If slutwalks were genuine acts of protest that can expose the duplicity of patriarchy and can unite women across the board, why haven’t we still considered it necessary to come up with the equivalent Hindi translation of the term slutwalk so that others (from non-English speaking backgrounds and the working class) can join as well? I think it’s because somewhere we have realized the exclusivity of and disconnect between the demands associated with the “freedom to dress in whatever way one wants” and the demands which are emerging from our working-class sisters. The problem then with upper-class women’s defence of hyper-feminity is that they simply assert the ‘autonomy’ of individual choice without engaging with the conflict that arises between the individual and social interest. The real question is not to restore autonomy in à la liberal way but to create different forms of (social) relations which can provide conditions where real autonomy of sexual choice can be created. It is autonomy only in this form that can prevent the breakdown of the self’s psychic connection between pleasure, desire, motivation and action.

In very clear terms, I also argued that upper-class women adhere to hyper-femme behaviour in the effort to find partners who enable them to remain in their class, or to move up to a higher status. Hence, the normalization of such sexual behaviour and the nurturing of a concomitant form of sexual desires, is far from a challenge posed to capitalism (and to the patriarchal functioning of society – which is in fact reproduced through such sexual behaviour), and instead, amounts to an acceptance of the sexual codes nurtured for each class by capitalism. In this light, by bringing class analysis into the existing debate on the strategy required to combat rape, I also tried to unpack the intimate ways in which women and men’s sexuality are connected. Of course, according to Krishnan and others, my assessments are such that “the blame for rape is displaced on to women’s sexuality rather than acknowledged as a problem of masculinity”. After reading and rereading my critics’ positions, I can say that I am simply aghast at their strange line of argument. I say this because nowhere did I argue that individual women’s sexuality was responsible for rape. Instead, I showed how the expression of sexuality by a section of women is giving form to the sexuality to be adhered to by the majority of women. Importantly this particular section of women expresses the (anti-women) form of sexuality in relation to (patriarchal) male sexuality, and so patriarchal feminity and aggressive masculinity exist in a relational grid, and not in isolation from each other. The fact is that men and women co-exist in society, and that they act and respond to each other in ways which are structured by the inequalities nurtured by class societies.

Having shown the serious problems with my critics’ approach to my arguments, I proceed to expose the connection between their ‘high’ (intersectionist) theory and the politics of populism. As mentioned above, by enlisting women belonging to different (and contradicting) positions into a unified category of oppressed women, the intersectionist position has allowed my critics to project an equivalence in discontent, which simply means that everyone is oppressed, albeit with some differences in the degree of oppression faced. My original paper argued that the notion of equivalence was one of the ways in which upper-class women can conceal their guilt of belonging to a higher class and still appear radical. I elucidate the graver and more sinister problems associated with such a notion of equivalence.

For one, this notion of equivalence can throw up momentary alliances at the most around some issues and events, which can hardly suffice in sustaining durable movements in an organized form. In fact, such momentary alliances merely facilitate the temporary rallying around of free-floating individuals who can hop on and hop off the long, arduous journey towards the preparation for our society’s transformation. Moreover, these alliances forged under the notion of equivalence are made possible by neutralizing the proletarian critique of the middle-class wo/man’s complicity. In actual political terms this stance or approach has manifested itself in populism, which is a form of politics that sustains the hegemony of the middle-class understanding of rape and women’s oppression. It was this political tendency which was critiqued in my paper, as I witnessed several activists (and not just Krishnan) espousing it, and hence, paving the way for an anti-rape struggle that defines women’s ‘equality’ in a particularist form and asserts gender equality/gender justice as the ultimate solution to rape, while positing amendments to law, more gender-sensitive policing, better governance, change in mindsets, etc. as the more immediate solutions. In this process, populism leaves ample space for relegating “other”, i.e. class-related issues for a more “opportune” moment. Of course, if my critics had their way, their misconception that a critique of capital tends to compromise with the critique of patriarchy (!) would prevail, and as a result, the “right” or “opportune” time shall never arrive.

Does this mean that no alliances can be forged on the basis of the prevailing discontent within capitalism? Indeed not, for alliances are necessary, albeit not in the form encapsulated in populism and theoretically justified through the theory of ‘intersectionality’. Thus, it is not that working-class women stand to gain nothing from azaadi. However, this azaadi should take the form that furthers their interests rather than projecting the particularist interests of middle-class women as the general interest of all women. So, despite the class specificity of the women’s question, an alliance with oppressed women of other classes is possible and desirable. Nonetheless, such an alliance can be sought, not by trailing behind the middle-class woman’s understanding of women’s oppression and rape, but by accommodating middle-class discontent within a different form of politics. Indeed, It is only by giving middle-class discontent a new political form that we can prevent the neutralization of the working class position. Of course, while saying all this, I realize that my critics may not agree with me. However, when delineating the role of class in the shaping of human sexuality and women’s oppression, my purpose was not to reach an (immediate) “consensus”. Instead, I, along with what Aditya Nigam calls “radical gossip circles”, have sought to and are committed to articulating a coherent critique of a misplaced, class-eliding politics that simply upholds the hegemonic understanding of the middle class. Our efforts to expose the dangers of such politics will continue, hopefully with more of our misguided contemporaries rethinking their strategy and joining forces. And if it comes to it, our efforts to further develop the Marxist understanding of social problems and to march towards a more egalitarian and just society shall persist, without, or if need be, against them.

[Maya John is associated with Centre for Struggling Women (CSW), and is a researcher working on labour law at the Department of History, University of Delhi ]


4 Responses to “Critiquing Intersectionality, Populism and Gender Disembodied of Class: A Marxist Reassertion”

  1. K M Venugopalan Says:
    June 11th, 2013 at 05:13

    If one can make such a mechanistic looking claim to ‘THE’class perspective and Marxist position, how at all one could feel even a semblance of solidarity with women’s struggles against rape & other umpteen structures of brutalization in regimes bourgeois ,semi-feudal, neoliberal, mixed or whatever ?
    >> “..Hence, Marxism or working-class politics has always argued that gender equality means different things for different classes. By extension this means that there is no general women’s question, and that each class has its own women’s question…”

  2. RN Says:
    June 12th, 2013 at 00:15

    Radical Notes’ Editorial on the Debate:

    Anti-Rape Movement: A Horizon beyond Legalism and Sociology

  3. K M Venugopalan Says:
    June 12th, 2013 at 09:30

    Reading the concluding part of the monograph
    ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’
    by Sunil Mohan and Sumathi Murthy
    [Bangalore: May 2013; pp 90]

    “..We want to create spaces and identities that are inclusive for all.
    Finally, we have shown how contemporary women’s movements still
    rely on a narrow understanding of womanhood – a womanhood that is
    largely only accessible by class privileged people in India. We have also
    critiqued the gay/bisexual movement for its upper-class gay male bias. A
    transgender feminist movement cannot repeat these class biases in the
    construction of our politics and priorities. The reality of the situation is
    that the majority of female born sexual and gender minorities we spoke
    with, come from the context of incredible poverty and discrimination.
    For many of them their sexuality and/or gender identity only compounds
    the discrimination they already face as working class people and people
    of historically disenfranchised castes.
    Therefore, transgender feminism is rooted in a commitment not only to
    social equality and legal recognition, but also of economic justice. This means
    fundamentally using different tactics and strategies to make sure that we
    tailor movement commitments to improve the lives of poor/working
    class people. Efforts must also be made not to repeat a pattern of gay/
    bisexual single-issue politics where gender and sexuality rights are
    constructed as ‘privileged’ rights. We must envision new models to talk
    about the importance of accepting diverse sexualities and genders that
    take class and caste seriously..”
    [I wonder if the above piece of text would make class perspective or not!]

  4. Rajesh Tyagi Says:
    June 14th, 2013 at 11:39

    Maya…Difficulty is that you take departure from a wrong point. You include lumpens among working class…and stretch that simple sexual perversion that continues under capitalism, so far as to really overstep all boundaries of marxist thought and yourself, though unconscious of it, enter the same petty-bourgeois premise, where Kavita already stand…In this you completely ignore that peculiar development of capitalism in backward countries like India, where pre-capitalist societies are not destroyed by ruling bourgeoisie, but are preserved and subjected to itself and so their historically outmode cultures saturated with perversions created by both societies..old and new…

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