The paper I will be presenting today is very much a work in progress. To that end, I plan to talk for about 20 minutes and then open the room up for discussion. I enthusiastically invite your feedback and questions! I am working this bit into a journal article, so in many ways I am still hammering out the argument. So, really, what you will see here is that there are a couple of interesting things going on that I think we can and need to talk about together and this is my beginning of trying to do that. It might totally fail. But, in my mind, some of the best work comes out of just trying to muck things up a bit. So, lets see what we can muck up.
A quick note on language and a bit of a warning. First, obviously, I am going to be talking about allegations of sexual harassment. For the most part, I am using the very public allegations leveled against Harvey Weinstein as my object of analysis. I will not be going into the details of his actions but, rather, will be looking at the various ways in which disgust has been mobilized as a response to these actions.
Second, I am attempting to articulate what I am calling ordinary sexual violence. By ordinary sexual violence, I mean the ways in which anyone who fails to achieve proper, white heteromasculinity is subject to ongoing, insistent and persistent sexual degradation ranging from images of women in the media to the centrality of consent frameworks in addressing sexual violence, which render all sex always already at risk of becoming rape. This is a tricky undertaking, as you will see, in that I both do not want to claim that sexual violence is not a serious offense but I also want to name it as something NOT aberrant but rather central to the social mechanisms of heteronormativity. I firmly believe that it is. And, yet, as both an abolitionist and a feminist, I think we have hit the limits of criminalization of such offenses. The trick too is delineating between the scale of offenses from improper jokes to full on violence assaults. In many ways, I capture all of these under the rubric of ordinary sexual violence. Maybe this is something we can discuss in the Q&A. but, I just want to say, I try out many different ways to name these instances and behaviors in this piece and my intention is not to deflect form their severity. Again, hopefully this struggle will become clearer as I move through the paper.
So, a little background. In many ways, this projects started about 2 years ago when I started a new job. In the classic way, that probably many of us can recognize, I was given a sort of who’s who amongst my new colleagues…who to have on your side when you went up for tenure, who to ask about for the best teaching tips, and, of course, who to avoid for this reason or that. Disgust is a central circulating affect in the whisper network that attends to threats of sexual harassment and sexual violence, especially in closed social circles. For example, while acclimating to a new workplace, I was warned by a number of colleagues to avoid another colleague, one actively undergoing investigation for sexual harassment, because he is “disgusting.” While the accusation of disgust made a clear boundary between us and him, it was not entirely clear why I, in particular, should avoid this person. As a form of boundary making, the admonishment to stay away might serve as a kind of informal excommunication. In other words, if we all “stayed away” the alleged offender may be forced out. But, on a deeper scratch, this admonishment also does the work to advise me away from guilt by association. In this way, the warning serves not simply to protect me from being on the receiving end of harassment but, perhaps, to create a wide berth so as not to be made guilty of the perpetuation of harassment by association.
Proclamations of disgust are de rigeur in the field of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Indeed, in the whisper network that allows women and others who may be susceptible to such onslaughts, members are often warned against creeps, told to keep their distance from colleagues or interlopers who are deemed gross, disgusting, vile. Disgust has a long history of marking boundaries not only of the body—if we think of disgust as an affect that protects against poisoning- connected to hunger- but of the social – in the words of mindy kaling as the voice of disgust in Disney’s inside out: “life is full of little mistakes, wrong turns, and poor judgments…disgusts job is to make sure none of them happen to you.” (from video introducing character of disgust)
In this paper, I move to examine the role of disgust in responses to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Central to my argument is a pushing back on the ways in which disgust allows the continuance of rendering sexual degradation legible only through the realm of criminality. Rather than the aberrant, I argue that disgust, in this framework, render sexual harassment and sexual violence ordinary. **disgust has been used to create laws, etc but disgust is a social affect that does boundary work within communities and cultures outside of legalized frameworks…or legal frameworks are borne in response to disgust they do not legislate disgust** I offer this engagement as a preliminary and likely undeveloped examination of the use of disgust. And, yet, as recent cultural shifts have shown, we can no longer rely on juridical notions of the aberrant actor to understand or respond to sexual violence. So, in other words – I want to think about disgust the sort of disavowal that disgust does as a way to name sexual harassment. Sexual violence as something that we are all …not necessarily complicit in, but that is everywhere.
This paper has two parts. First, using the Weinstein example as a case study, I articulate the various uses of disgust, from a moralizing boundary marker to a kind of flippant dismissal, in responses to allegations of sexual harassment. Pivoting, then, to the #metoo movement as another form of response, I read this kind of saturation movement with the politics of Andrea Dworkin, specifically as such politics are disarticulated from her better known juridical battles against pornography. Finally, I return to the question of disgust to link the inability of disgust to parse along the lines of scale in response to sexual harassment and sexual violence as an in roads for a kind of politics of disgust that might mobilize differently.
In the days and weeks after the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual harasser and perpetrator of sexual violence, the media and twitterverse were abuzz with disavowals of the disgusting nature of his acts. Indeed, as has continued nearly daily since the fall of 2017, the outing of men, and some women, who have abused potions of power through sexual violence, is often followed by vociferous proclamations of disgust. For example, soon after the New Yorker magazine expose, a New York Times headline read: “Lisa Bloom, Harvey Weinstein’s advisor, criticizes his behavior towards women: ‘It’s gross’”(Twohey and Chokshi 2017).
I take the response leveled at Harvey Weinstein as emblematic of the uses of disgust in responses to sexual harassment. To be sure, disgust is a regular distancing response to allegations of sexual harassment, whether they occur on the national scale or in the local politics of our own social and professional communities. My reason for narrowing in on the Weinstein case are three fold. First, there is a rich and publicly accessible archive from which to draw my analysis. Second, the use of disgust in responding to allegations against Weinstein run the gamut from the naming of “gross” as a way to downplay Weinstein’s behavior to defensive attempts at distancing and repudiation as others were accused of turning a proverbial blind eye to his behaviors. The vehemence and variety of the uses of disgust in these examples allow me to unpack the multiple uses of disgust. Third, the figure of Weinstein himself, specifically his Jewishness but also his Hollywood high snoberry, simultaneously draws on more historical uses of disgust as well as upends the logic of disgust as marking the boundaries of the upper caste system against all things lower. (this is a point I don’t go too much into here, but I am happy to discuss in the Q&A) Nevertheless, it must be noted that the accusations leveled against Weinstein are shockingly violent and, dare I say, vile. And while they may differ in quality and severity they are also certainly not the worst of the many violences inflicted on women and those who fail at proper masculinity under the rubrics of patriarchy. Indeed, as has been well documented, sexual violence has a long and rich history of (something about race and homosexuality – corrective rape, etc in a footnote). As will become clear in my discussion of everyday sexual violence, however, under the current frameworks of consent, they are few conceptual tools to make sense of the differences in quality or severity. By analyzing how disgust as a response tends to lump all transgression together, I hope to begin to unknot this impasse.
Following Sara Ahmed, I am interested in is how the object of disgust becomes sticky, that is saturated with affect. In affective economies, ahmed argues, “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachment” (Ahmed 2004, 119). Emotion, however, are only able to do thing, to convey meaning, that is, to stick through shared cultural reference and meaning. The sharing of emotions, in Ahmed specifically fear, disgust, shame, and love, enacts a stickiness that coheres a community against an other. Disgust, while it shared experience can cohere a group, is also a castings out, a deflection of the stickiness of that which incites the reaction. Disgust, in this way, according to William Miller “one of our more culture-creating passions” (Miller 1998, xii).
Thus, when Harvey Weinstein’s advisor proclaims his actions to be “gross” she is not only disavowing him but also deflecting the accusations away from her. To call Weinstein’s behavior “gross,” Bloom is marking herself on the side of the grossed out, the disgusted. As one who is disgusted, and who, I have noted is just one among many voices whose condemnation took the valence of disgust, Bloom makes clear that she does not—and thus could not have—supported such behaviors. But, the use of gross here also signals a kind of flippant dismissal.
On it surface, the use of disgust in such responses seems clear. As a repudiation mechanism, the proclamation of disgust is meant to simultaneously shame the object of disgust as well distance the disgusted from the accused. This use of disgust, in the framework of the gross, is especially clear in the example of Lisa Bloom above. For Bloom, the repudiation is meant to downplay Weinstein’s behavior. As his lawyer and advisor in the wake of allegations, she is downplaying his behavior from the realm of the criminal to the realm of the bad, the merely gross. This distancing is both alike and markedly different from the claim of disgust Barack Obama leveled against Weinstein. Within days of the New York Times expose, Michelle and Barack Obama issued a joint statement…notably after their daughter has spent a summer interning with Weinstein
à obamas friends with Weinstein
à distancing à “Any man who demeans and degrades women in such a fashion needs to be condemened and held accountable, regardless of wealth or status.”
As a social affect, disgust is also about proximity. In this way, a proclamation of disgust names that which has come close but which has not contaminated. To proclaim something disgusting is a distancing move, a defense mechanism. There is an important difference in the valence of the proclamations “that’s disgusting” and “I am disgusted.” Clearly, the latter with its subjective I, names a very particular experience of being in a state of disgust. This state may or may not be shared with those around, those who would head the proclamation. The shared experience of said disgust may be reliant on a shared ingestion of the offending material or a shared social field that regulated insiders and outsider through the heirarchization of disgust. Nevertheless, the individual experience of disgust does not guarantee its wider recognition. The proclamation “that’s disgusting,” on the other hand, draws the attention of those around, or those who would heed the proclamation, into the experience of being disgusted (though, again, it does not guarantee a shared state). If the phrase, “that’s disgusting” hails the speaker and the receiver into a shared boundary against the threat of contamination, the phrase “I am disgusted” does even more work to assure the listener not only that the speaker is not contaminated but, even more so, that the speaker is not the site of contamination.
Harvey Weinstein serves as a lightening rod for the affective investment in disgust as a kind of collective disavowal. So we see a banding together to proclaim disgust. I this way, disgust takes on a moral valence: what William Miller argues, in his genealogy of disgust, argues: “moral judgment seems almost to demand the idiom if disgust” (Miller 1998, xi). Disgust has been used as a framework for the policing of morality through the structuring of the law. Martha Nussbaum is a critical thinker in this arena, exploring how disgust has been elicited in legislation surrounding everything from interracial marriage to sodomy laws.
Disgust is also used to name the experience of harassment and sexual violation. In this way it is a casting out, not only a disavowal but a literal and visceral. Disgust in this way abuts a kind of moralism through the connection to the body – the body as the truth. Again, Miller: disgust as a claim of morality gains veracity because of its connection to embodied feeling. The truth of the body. It appears then universal, not mere rule. “The disgust idiom puts our body behind our words, pledges it as security to make our words something more than mere words.” 181
This is not disconnected from the ways in which Weinstein himself becomes an easy target the the embodied and moralizing disgust that gets attached to both the fat and the jewish body – don’t really have time for here but can address in the Q&A.
Disgust is often experienced or mobilized to name a kind of intolerability. As a kind of rejection at the level of the visceral, disgust is a mechanism of protect against the poisonous invaders of the body. With its connections to dirt and filth, disgust as an embodied affect, is about managing contamination. This management of containment makes easy leaps to the realm of the social.
Disgust works in many other ways to name a kind of intolerance: James Toback mobilized disgust to disavow the allegations against him.
If disgust is a sentiment of intolerance, and here it seems to take on the valence of merely a sentiment, than the intolerance being expressed joins hands with the long history of tolerance as a political goal in the late twentieth century. The challenge here is that tolerance as it has been used to argue for the rights for both racial minorities and gay and lesbian “lifestyles” is an advocating for a kind of willfully ignoring, a live and let live kind of ethos. In this way, as I have noted above, disgust does the work of off-loading the tolerance that is tacitly being accused. When those who surround Weinstein, who possible would have known about his action or at least his reputation, state that they are disgusted, they are merely off loading their guilty tolerance. The implicit assumption that standings of disgust, as an offloading of tolerance, are a new commitment to a refusal to tolerate such actions in the future serves to reinforce the insidiousness of these behaviors. If tolerance is what is needed to assure certain groups the ability to live free from others regulations, then disgust stands on a tricky ground between regulating against and also — tolerance does not erase disgust aims at, queers for example, but rather forces us to tolerate it. Here disgust names a kind of tolerance but only as a response,
à disgust as a downplaying
à disgust as distancing
à disgust as moralizing
à disgust as blanket statement of disavowal
If proclamations of disgust are meant to signal the aberrant, than the explosion of the hashtag #metoo has responded to recognize such experiences in the realm of the ordinary. When Tarana Burke created the #metoo movement over a decade a go it was because she felt that responses to this everyday sexual harassment and sexual violation fell flat. Me too enacts a kind of feminist consciousness raising but in the age of social media it also saturates, contesting the idea that sexual degradation is the result of a few bad seeds but, rather, that all women (and queer and other who fail at hegemonic masculinity) are bombarded with these moments, with these attacks, with these degradations. Me too harkens back to the politics of Andrea Dworkin, whose most famous, though never actually spoken or written, quote is “all sex is rape.” Andrea Dworkin has become synonymous with a kind of feminist movement against the ordinary crisis, to use Lauren Berlant’s term, of the constitutive violence of feminist subjectivity under the rubric of heteropatriarchy. Though she is most remembered for her work with Katherine MacKinnon to enact anti-pornography legislation, her most famous books track more in literary and culture studies.
Interestingly, Many discussions of sex and disgust lean on Bersani’s now infamous claim that people don’t like sex.
**explain is the rectum a grave – Bersani in conversation with Dworkin – Dworkin too pastoralizing – puritan view of sex only as love –**
For this reason, Bersani’s argument, staged with and against Andrea Dworkin, provides a ripe starting point for unpacking a language of ordinary sexual violence.
We might paraphrase Bersani’s proclamation through a Dworkinsian frame: there is a big secret about men: they hate women.
Dworkin is a compelling thinker to turn to in order to theorize the overlap of disgust and the ordinariness of sexual degradation. This is true first and foremost because of her own theorizing on the subject, an often cited but little engaged hallmark of feminist theory. Even more so, and related to her position within the field, Dworkin herself often elicits disgust, whether a kind of moralizing repulsion connected to her fatness and proclaimed lesbianism or, perhaps more readily, the sneer her name often elicits in feminist and queer critical circles.
In her 1987 text Intercourse, Dworkin builds on her previous work on pornography to expand her analysis to reveal the rampant cultural associations between heterosexual intercourse and male pleasures in female submission. The central objects of Dworkin analysis are famous literary texts from Madame Bovary to James Baldwin’s Another Country. The central claim of Dworkin’s polemic is that literary and artistic depictions of heterosexual intercourse center on men’s violent occupation of the female body which becomes then her central condition. The text builds stepwise through increasingly violent depictions of heterosexual intercourse by drawing the connection between women’s abjection in intercourse and violence as constitutive of the female condition. In the concluding section, Dworkin draws the cultural analysis of the previous two sections into the realm of the law. In doing so, she aptly demonstrates how the numerous regulators of sexuality—religion, education, the state—work in concert to assure who is violated and who is not as a central condition of access to sexuality. Dworkin argues not only for the primacy of gender in any analysis of sexuality but, even more so, that regulations on sexuality in fact produce the gender system as we know it.
Dworkin takes sodomy law as one site of regulation that promotes and perpetuates women’s sexual subordination. Regulating what bodies are able to engage in specific sexual practices, Dworkin argues, both relies on and perpetuates a sense of naturalness connected to a sexual act. In regard to sodomy laws she states: “Men being fucked like women moves in an opposite direction; so there is a rule against men being fucked like women” (192). In other words, the criminalization of sodomy is not simply a homophobic measure against male-male sex but, rather, stands to document who should rightfully, that is naturally, be in the position of submission and who in the position of domination. To loosen these assignments, Dworkin parodies, would be “a lessening of differences between the sexes, the conflation of male and female natures into one human nature” (192). Dworkin, thus, reads sodomy statutes not as a protection against rape—as they often as often are invoked today—but, rather, as legislating who is rapable and who is not.
Dworkin has long been dismissed as a feminist extremist. Indeed, much of the disavowal of Dworkin has come from avowed feminists. This disavowal is made as a defense against being labeled a prude or anti-sex—an anxiety that is readily apparent in the ways in which Dworkin’s name becomes a stand in for a kind of bad feminist stereotype. Part of the misrepresentation of Dworkin as claiming “all sex is rape” hinges on misplaced interpretation of women’s position as always already victims. Even more so, this misunderstanding requires that Dworkin’s claims regarding intercourse be read literally rather than a descriptive account of how meanings are assumed naturalized through recourse to the body. To leave with the impression that all sex is rape is to distill sex to the binary opposition of domination and submission, yes and no. In this way, sex is something good and pleasurable (shattering) or bad and violating.
Rather than simply relegating to sex to such binarisms, however, Dworkin forces us to confront the messy, violent underside of the pleasures of abjection. In her concluding chapter, Dworkin connects the violent connotations of heterosexual intercourse to both women’s depictions as filth and sexuality’s explicit connections to death. In her characteristic tenor, Dworkin states: “Sadism and death, under male supremacy, converge at the vagina: to open the woman up, go inside her, penis or knife. The poor little penis kills before it dies” (241). Drawing together these connections, Dworkin argues for the absolute ordinariness of the sexual abjection of women. She extrapolates from the embodied positions of intercourse through a whole host of cultural associations between submission, abjection, filth and death.
Following on Dworkin’s assessment, disgust goes hand in hand with sexuality. More specifically, disgust is central to men’s pleasure in women’s abjection. For Dworkin, consent is not possible within the framework of the patriarchy. Women’s only option is to consent to their abjection. Or, Rather, to consent to their objectification in a system in which they are always already abject.
à disgust and abjection as central to women’s sexuality under heteronormative patriarchy à Dworkin gives us this – this is echoed in #metoo àthis is where it’s a bit slippery but can discuss in the q&a.
We are left with an impasse that feminist work has struggled to overcome for decades with little shift. Namely, that is seems nearly impossible to name and attended to the saturation of sexual violences in the lives of women, people of color, the non-normatively gendered, the incarcerated, the disabled, etc without falling into the trap of “all sex is rape” or without over reliance on criminalizing forms of surveillance and panic mongering.
Disgust might be one way to bridge this divide. Disgust as dismissal is not the right response, it is a flaccid response. But to elicit the same kind of disgust the Dworkin did, the slime up from the gutter a la Solanas, now that might be a politics we can get behind. Though some may accuse me of attempts to recuperate Dworkin from the trash bin of feminist essentialism and anti-sex puritanism. I assure you that is not my intention. Nevertheless, Dworkin, along with Solanas, Firestone, and Cheryl Clarke bring with them a kind of thrilling vitriol. Dworkin and Solanas see disgust as a political inroad to feminism. Not strictly as a moralizing feature but as the visceral reaction will motivate us to cast out.
Disgust marks the offending person or event as aberrant, a break in the standard. Sexual violation, however, is ordinary. I want to offload the site of sexual violence from the individual or from the body to the culture. I argue here that by taking this mode of disavowal (that’s disgusting) seriously, we can reframe sexual harassment from the aberrant to the ordinary. Like the disgust mechanism in our minds, an attention to disgust in these frameworks allows us to name the minefield of degradations…(voice of disgust from movie) the life full of mistakes, wrong turns, and poor judgments…in order to approach the field athwart.
 There has been a notable return to Dworkin recently. Specifically, a number of prominent 3rd wave feminists have begun to ask about the effects of this disavowal. See especially: Johanna Faterman in Icon and Ariel Levy in her introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Intercourse.