Meagan Tyler: "We should fight for the right to have interwoven feminist activism and academic work"
This is a transcript of the speech Dr Meagan Tyler delivered on 29 November 2020 for the ‘Feminist Academics Talk Back!' meeting. Women Talk Back! has been commemorating the UN Women 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women starting on November 25th, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and culminating on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day. You can read more about Meagan's scholarship on behalf of women and girls here.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for the invitation.
What a topic we have to discuss! It is certainly just as pertinent to be talking about issues of feminism and academic freedom on this side of the globe as it is in the UK. And I’m really glad that we are talking about this during the United Nations 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women.
Men’s violence against women is what I have spent most of my career researching and writing about. And, if any of you have read my work, you’ll probably already know most of it is focused on the sex trade and violence, particularly pornography, but also prostitution and trafficking. Which means you get treated a bit differently from researchers who say, just focus on domestic violence. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see my pinned tweet is actually a thread about what it’s like to be a female academic critiquing the sex industry.
It’s an area of study I never really felt as though I consciously chose. I’ve since discovered it’s not the kind of thing you plot out a stellar academic career around – but I didn’t know that when I started out.
I was initially fuelled by a mixture of anger about what I saw happening around me during the rise of pornographication in the early 2000s, and inspiration from having had the benefit of exposure to radical feminism in my university studies, as well as a belief in academic study as a path to create a meaningful contribution to feminism.
As a working-class kid, and the first in my family to make it to university, I felt education had opened pathways to me that I’d never dreamed of – that might sound trite, but it’s true. And, in taking a political science degree, I was lucky enough to be taught by people who had often transitioned from various forms of quite radical activism into new careers in the academy.
I was lucky enough to catch the last remnants of what higher education meant in Australia before neoliberalism. Free higher education was abolished about a decade before I got to university as an undergraduate, and managerialism was taking hold, but the attitude among faculty was, fortunately, still very much that of the previous era.
There was a clear commitment to learning and challenging the status quo, without fear or favour. People openly and passionately disagreed and that was presented to us, as students, as perfectly normal.
And I mention all this background, because – to me – you cannot fully understand the quashing of feminist thought and debate in universities without also understanding the effects of neoliberalism and corporatisation on the academy.
There has been a slow but palpable sense of suffocation among critical academics in a range of fields in Australia. A fear of speaking out. Probably worse if - like me - through a bizarre twist of fate, you happened to end up being a radical feminist based in a business school.
So, while I think feminists have copped it worse, we are not alone and – in some ways – we can just be seen as the canaries down the mine in terms of the strangling of academic freedom and the stifling of varied branches of critical thought in higher education.
But what does this really look like on the ground? And what does it mean for those of us who believe that a structural analysis of women’s oppression and men’s violence against us is not only vital but belongs within universities as well as outside of them?
On one level, there are small, everyday things that make you feel unwelcome. Things like being told you are a “risky appointment” because you research the sex industry. Or your Dean complaining to your mentor about your online profile being “too depressing” because it is so focussed on men’s violence against women.
Or the structural issues of the marginalisation of feminist analysis, especially radical, materialist, and socialist feminist analyses, across so much of the social sciences and humanities, including in gender studies. Feminist journals, or journals focussed on violence against women, rarely reach the new “elite” tiers of publishing metrics in places like Australia. If you’re prepared to write about masculinity on the other hand…
But these issues, along with neoliberalism and corporatisation, are the backdrop to what happens when you more acutely and overtly challenge your own University’s “brand”. When you cross an invisible line that has been drawn somewhere without you even knowing it.
I should say, in terms of context, I’m used to attacks from others. You develop a pretty thick skin doing this work, for a whole variety of reasons, as you can imagine. But I didn’t realise how different work was for those not writing feminist analyses of violence against women and the sex industry for a long time.
I was an academic for literally *years* before I realised that not all my colleagues expect to get hostility and abuse when they give conference papers, for example. Most of them, it turns out, expect polite applause and maybe some disappointment at dull comments posing as questions from the audience.
Someone being a total arsehole was just my reality – a pro-porn professor, or a pro-sex work activist, throwing around ‘SWERF’ in the Q&A or asking if my research wasn’t the *real* problem, as though simply speaking about women’s lived realities of sexual violence was the issue rather than the actual men doing the actual violating of actual women.
And public speaking outside of academic events – well that usually comes with the same kind of tactics that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Claims that my work, and therefore my presence at an event, makes others unsafe; that I should therefore not be given a platform by any progressive organisation (as though feminism is not progressive!); and, even the occasional outlandish accusation, like that I am part of a radical feminist gang that breaks into people’s homes to doxx them. I’m not making that up. An anonymous group literally put together a public statement claiming this a couple of years back, when trying to no-platform me.
But during all of these kinds of impingement – from unpleasantness to outright threats – my various institutions had stood by me.
What I wasn’t so well prepared for was when certain people at a new university seemed to feel my activities weren’t quite “on brand”. And I’m just going to give you some detail of one incident in particular. And I think it’s important because we need to understand how the everyday functions and structures of the corporate university are such a threat to feminism.
Despite my institution being an award-winning employer of choice for gender equality, and the kind of place that hands out a lot of paraphernalia about “respect” at work, it often feels as though there isn’t much room for the kind of feminist analysis that anyone might ever get upset about. Or much assertion of the need for students or other staff to respect me or the women I work with, including sex trade survivors.
For some years now, I have run a Feminist Forum seminar series, with two colleagues: Dr Kaye Quek and Dr Kate Farhall (Google them, they are fabulous scholars!) We were all PhD students in the same program and eventually managed to land jobs at the same institution – a minor miracle. Three academics using radical feminist analysis, in the same place, at the same time is quite something in contemporary academia.
It went fine, for a while. We had seminars about how Amnesty International had lost it way on women’s rights; we had seminars about football culture and rape; we had seminars about the need to abolish marriage. But then we had a seminar on the intersections of violence against women in the sex industry and in surrogacy, with Renate Klein and Julie Bindel both talking about their latest books.
And, through a confluence of factors, all hell broke loose. Or at least that’s how it felt to us as organisers.
The university pulled the room we had booked, about 48 hours before the event was scheduled to go ahead. It was pointed out to us, in a rather accusatory tone, that we hadn’t made the highest levels of the university executive aware of our seminar – as though we were supposed to personally notify them of all our events (we did offer to sign them all up to Feminist Forum mailing list) – and that they feared there might be protests that could potentially disrupt nearby classes.
There were apologies for the inconvenience, but no-one seemed to think there was anything particularly problematic about shutting down an academic event featuring two prominent lesbian feminists speaking about violence against women – no-one except us, of course.
So, we pushed back. We spoke to the Chief Operating Officer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and the Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing. Eventually, they agreed to pay for an off-campus venue and security. But our choices were: a) a nearby church, or b) a function centre that turned out to be few doors down from a brothel.
Nothing could have better solidified in my mind exactly why we needed to be able to have access to our own campus for feminist events and research seminars, just as – like all other academics – we are entitled to do.
The aftermath confirmed some my worst fears about management and bureaucracy in neoliberal higher education, in many ways. I was called to a meeting with senior administrators; fortunately, I was able to drag the director of my research centre along with me. In a room of about 20 people, we were the only academics.
The meeting began with one of the executives offering up her personal view on the value and importance of surrogacy as though this was relevant information. It wasn’t until about halfway through the meeting one of the other executives interrupted to ask what academic freedom was.
This foundational idea on which the whole of university life and knowledge production is based meant nothing to a room full of people who governed many of the university’s functions and processes. It is not unusual for hear people in such roles now state (sometimes very proudly) that they know little about the contours of higher education in Australia, having fled the corporate world, from areas like banking, for-profit healthcare, and telecommunications. A trend that stretches far beyond my own institution.
Given this context, it is not surprising that feminism is very threatening to them. That academic freedom is threatening to them. And that feminists exercising their academic freedom is especially threatening to them.
It all adds up and it has a pretty chilling effect. On your ability to do your own job. On your ability to speak out.
And I’m aware that, by this point, there’s probably a pretty obvious question lurking in the back of everyone’s minds: why don’t we all just leave the academy and run as far away as possible?
Well, some days, I think maybe we should. Some of us, have. There are alternative online feminist studies, feminist summer schools, and even feminist think tanks developing in some places.
And universities certainly don’t have a monopoly on knowledge or education.
But there are also good reasons to stay and fight. Our challenges here as feminists are also inextricably caught up with the fight for free education, the de-corporatisation of the academy, and our rights as workers.
We should fight for the right to have interwoven feminist activism and academic work. For us to be able to pool our resources and build to educate new generations of young women. For there to be a foundational place for feminism, and for a structural analysis of power and men’s violence, in a whole variety of degrees.
And perhaps we need a new kind collective, something like Feminists for Academic Freedom (I’m aware FfAF is not a great acronym, maybe we can work on that?). Because it’s really vital that we don’t just fall back on libertarian ideas about free speech and the need for all perspectives to be heard – no matter how outlandish or potentially harmful – but, instead, re-claim and re-assert the immense value of feminist knowledge, feminist research, feminist teaching, and feminist activism.
And how important all of this is to the ongoing struggle against men’s violence and for women’s liberation.
Dr Meagan Tyler (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology RMIT) is a senior lecturer whose research interests are based mainly around feminist theory and gender inequality in a range of contexts. Her work in these areas has been widely published, including in Rural Studies, Women’s Studies International Forum, Violence Against Women, and Women and Therapy as well as several edited collections including 'Everyday Pornography' (Boyle ed., 2010) and 'Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality' (Coy ed., 2012) and 'Freedom Fallacy:The Limits of Liberal Feminism' (Kiraly & Tyler, ed. 2015).