Masculinities, sexism, class and violence

Throughout history, elites have used violence to maintain power, but their most effective way of making inequality seem inevitable has arguably been to encourage the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. As the ‘me too’ movement chips away at violent and essentialist strategies alike, this paper from Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale considers an important intersection between class and gender: the central part that systematic inequality between women and men has to play in class societies

Christine Blasey Ford

Without a theory of gender – of what it is and what it does in the world – we cannot explain why sexual imagery, notions of masculinity and femininity, desire and sexual encounters, and gendered relations differ in different times and places. And without such explanations we cannot effectively fight against sexism – that is, systematic patterns of inequality between women and men in any particular setting – and sexual violence.

Our aim here is to suggest answers to such comparative questions about causality and change. And neoliberalism is a perfect laboratory. In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher, with her supporters in the UK, and President Reagan and capitalists in Washington decided to squeeze more profit out of the system. It has been a decision that has been ruthlessly pursued by Conservatives and capitalists for the forty years since then. Neoliberalism is the economic system of our time.

Here we build on the theoretical insights set out in Dislocating Masculinity to offer a new, and perhaps surprising, way of understanding the roots of sexism and the inequality experienced between men and women in terms of sexual violence.[1]

Our laboratory is neoliberalism, but we begin elsewhere. We start from a simple fact: for much of human history, people lived in societies without class. No one was much richer than others, and no one lived by exploiting other people’s work. There was great cultural variety between these non-class societies. But they were egalitarian, and there were no consistent or enduring patterns of inequality between men and women. (The work of Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus and that of Martin Jones offers an introduction to the archaeological research that has recently illuminated this, along with classic ethnographic studies from Richard Lee and Eleanor Burke Leacock, and new ethnographies by Laura Rival and Shanshan Du.)[2]

This is not to say all hunting and gathering societies were egalitarian. Slavery and class could, and did, develop in some places where it was possible to control great concentrations of resources, like the salmon runs on the northwest coast of North America. We also have descriptions of farming communities that would ‘slash and burn’ their fields and move on every few years. Some of these communities tolerated considerable inequality, but people did not usually pass their unequal status down to their children. And many of these communities were egalitarian: Joanna Overing’s excellent account of Piaroa communities in Venezuela is of particular interest here, because she noted that gendered differences were highly marked, but men and women were equal.[3]

By contrast, in class societies everywhere, past and present, we see both class inequality and systematic inequality between men and women.

Why? We think there is a straightforward answer regarding this. In every unequal society, the rich and powerful want things to stay unequal. Elites use violence to make that happen. But elites also need the rest of us to believe that inequality is natural. And what we see is that the most effective way for elites to make inequality seem inevitable is to encourage the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. This motivates elites to enforce gendered inequality. In turn, this leads members of wider society to grow up thinking men and women are essentially unequal, making sexism and the threat of sexual violence a constant feature of our lives.

Elites use racism and many other ideologies to divide us and make inequality seem natural. But traditional ideas about gender naturalise inequality better than racism. They are effective because they are double-sided: one side is love, while the other is imbued with sexism. Racism instils hatred and creates absolute others, while sexism is far more complicated and confusing because love and kindness are aspects of all our closest human relationships – with our parents, our children, our friends and our lovers, straight or gay. But at the same time, these are also riven with gender differences and inequality. So love locks us in and yet sexism hurts and angers us, and can sometimes kill.

We are simultaneously trapped and divided. We are trapped in loving relations with people in settings infused with gendered inequality, so we squabble about housework, endure domestic violence or quarrel about gender parity in workplaces rife with sexual abuse. In these struggles over gendered relations, we lose sight of how they hide class inequality. This leaves us helpless and makes it easier for the elite to rule.

Here, we offer a radical approach to understanding the roots of sexism in class society. We begin with a framing argument and way of looking at gendered relations in class societies. We then turn to look at the implication of these ideas under neoliberal capitalism. By making these links explicit we hope to contribute to the upsurge of popular resistance – in Delhi, Turkey, Britain, and the US, for example – to sexism and sexual violence and to the cover-ups that allow such oppression to persist.

Our theoretical argument starts from the top: from class privilege.

Starting with class society

Running through all our experiences are the ways that people with power at the top of society make sexual abuse and sexual violence possible. Rather, this knowledge is hidden by ideologies of gender. To understand how this truth is hidden, and why, we need to look at the way sexism and violence are entangled with class.[4]

The best way is to start by thinking of class societies since the beginning: in effect, the beginning of agriculture, some 8000 years ago. As outlined above, we know now that is when class inequality began, and when systematic gender inequality began as well. And though before the advent of class societies, gendered differences were marked in a wide variety of ways, there was no systematic or enduring gender inequality.

By contrast, there is a direct connection between class inequality and societies with settled grain agriculture where food producers are tied to the land and their granaries which hold the surpluses they produce can easily be controlled by others.[5]

And it is with the rise of class society that systematic gendered inequality also appears. Let us mark the logic of this argument. It is important.

Patriarchy and sexism were around long before capitalism, so we cannot explain sexism in terms of capitalism. And explanations that blame men for sexism simply can’t work, because there are men in non-class societies, where there was no systematic gendered inequality.

This demands a different sort of explanation: one that looks at causes and focuses on social change. That is, we need an argument which allows us to explain why, when and how relations between men and women, along with the relationships between styles of masculinity and femininity, change through time. We need such an explanation because we want to find ways to implement greater equality.

Violence and arbitrary class power

Clearly if the rise of systematic gendered inequality is associated with the rise of class society, this is the place to begin. By class society, we mean that there is a ruling group who live from the labour of others for most of their lives, and are able to pass this privilege down to the next generation. Throughout most of the history of class society, the majority of work has been in growing food. Peasants or slaves take this on, while the lord, landowner or king takes a third or a half of the crop in taxes or dues, and uses it to feed his family, priests, soldiers and servants. Today, class relations are somewhat more complicated, but almost all of us still work for the elite; that is, the work the vast majority of us do supports the ruling class.

Class inequality involves a relationship between two classes of people. We can characterize them as the leisure classes and those who work, the rulers and those who are ruled, the haves and the have-nots or, in the words of the Occupy movement, the 99% and the 1%.

The key aspect of class inequality, and class privilege, is that it is arbitrary. By arbitrary we mean that those things distinguishing the ruling class from the subordinate peasants or workers who support them are contrived, socially constructed and always open to question. Elites do not have blue blood. Elites are not privileged because they are blonder, whiter or have better table manners. They can be replaced – dynasties change, revolutions happen, and ruling classes lose their grip and are overtaken by others.

Because class privilege is arbitrary, it is precarious and can be challenged, resisted and, ultimately, overturned. And this means that ultimately class privilege is everywhere and kept in place by violence and ideology. The violence is always there.

Why the ideology favours men over women is an enormous question without a definitive answer. Probably sexism too is best explained in terms of the way violence is used to maintain class privilege. Indeed, our hunch is that the answer may be quite simple (Lindisfarne and Neale, 2014). Men in any one community have marginal advantages over women in terms of size and strength. Until the advent of weapons requiring no brute strength, such as gunpowder and guns, this made men likely enforcers of inequality – as bodyguards, soldiers or domestic rulers – in any particular unequal society.

There was violence by feudal thugs and henchmen. Today, there is still the violence of class enforcers like the police and the army, but other class enforcers include overbearing managers and administrators of industry and corporations, the people who run the prison, mental health and school systems, and those who manage and administer the institutions of the state.

Saying this puts violence right where it belongs – at the heart of class power. And it allows us to think analytically about violence. The idea of distinguishing three types of violence in a tripartite division we’ve borrowed from Žižek – direct violence, anonymous violence and symbolic violence – is a useful way to start.[6]

Direct violence is where actors are known and can be named: where Tom bashes Harry, or a woman slaps her child. Anonymous violence is part of the system, but it is hard to pin responsibility on any particular person. Who is responsible for the drones that kill women and men in Afghanistan? Who is responsible when a man dies in police custody? Meanwhile, examples of symbolic violence include statutes of Jesus on the Cross, the racist manipulation of fear in the War on Terror or threats of alien invasion.


Violence is central to arbitrary class power, but so too is resistance central to understanding the limits of that power. Resistance is the other side of the equation. Resistance and power must be treated in tandem, together. They are aspects of an ongoing process and struggle which is the very essence of the class divide.

Resistance to inequality is basic to who we are. Human beings are social animals, and therefore empathic. This means we can understand what other people are thinking, and what they feel, and we are able to see the world from another person’s point of view. We know from the archaeological record, and from history, that ordinary people have always been able to see the similarities between themselves and other people. A notion of ‘common humanity’ lies at the heart of all the world religion traditions, and there are many available popular ideologies of fairness. Because such universalising discourses emphasise sameness and can appeal to the majority of the people at any one time and place, they offer powerful ways to challenge authority. In confrontations, the balance of forces between popular opposition and elite power determines the outcome of electoral contests, social movements, civil wars and revolutions. In each instance how an individual judges the outcome depends on whose side that individual is on.[7]

Because resistance is part of our makeup, the violence associated with class inequality can never be only notional, or ‘symbolic’. It must also include real sanctions and sometimes terrible punishments for defying class etiquette, or questioning the stereotypes that mark class differences or challenging class hierarchy and privilege. A fear of violence itself serves to discipline people. But to keep inequality in place, ordinary people must be made to understand that violence can be immediate and real. They must be taught that the ruling class will meet defiance with harm – perhaps by causing them physical and mental privation, or pain, or by turning to systematic torture and killing.

Sexism: the ultimate ideology of divide and rule

However, violence alone is never enough to stop ordinary people from striving for human equality. As previously mentioned in relation to gender inequality the introductory part of this essay, to keep inequality in place, the ruling class also needs ideologies which naturalise difference and make inequality seem normal and right.

When something is successfully ‘naturalised’, it is made to seem ‘god-given’ or ‘meant to be’. The class hierarchy is naturalised when we feel it is right and proper that the British royals should live in palaces, and it doesn’t immediately cross our minds to ask why some of us are homeless and others struggling to pay for a roof over their heads.

Ideologies that naturalise inequality divide and rule by punishing and excluding people who are the wrong sex, colour, nationality or religion. Such ideologies are shaped and propagated by the ruling class. After all, the elite are the ones they benefit. But such ideologies only work because they keep many other people in thrall by disguising elite privilege, by inviting others to identify with the elite and encouraging ageist, racialised and gendered inequality throughout a system of social relations.

Such perpetuation of inequality means we need to think clearly about this top-down process.

We know how racism works, insomuch as there are differences of skin colour between all of us – it is a continuum. But so what? Racism isn’t about shades of melanin; it is about someone making skin colour an issue: making it important. It is about marking difference and using it to oppress and exploit some people for the benefit of others.

We all also know that racisms vary. In South Africa during the apartheid era, there were whites and blacks and a ‘mixed-race’ category of ‘coloured’ people in-between. In Brazil, racism works on a gradient of skin colour. In the American South, under slavery, one drop of ‘Negro’ blood was enough to make an ostensibly white-skinned person black. These ideas are different, but they are all variants of racist ideology. They are based on the same principle: that skin colour can be used to mark and sustain class inequality, which for many is experienced and sexualized as white privilege.

Sexism, intimacy and love

Just as racist ideologies naturalise inequality, we suggest that this is also what sexism and sexist ideologies do. Sexist ideologies are immensely powerful and have been since the beginning of class society. They are arguably the most effective way for ruling classes to naturalise inequality. This is for one simple reason – gender goes deep and divides us from the people we love. It is new, and useful, to see sexism in this light.

All of our close relations are gendered: with our parents, our children, and our partners and lovers – gay or straight. So too are all of the emotions we prize – our capacity for affection and joy, our passion, our energy and the thrill of sexual desire and pleasure. We know this. Yet we also know how our closest relationships and our most decent feelings can be ruined by gendered neglect and hurt, anger and fear. The boundaries between sexual pain and pleasure are blurred by social expectations and stereotypes, culturally specific, part of all our everyday lives and always up for debate. This is the stuff of great novels and soap operas, grand operas and country music – and the horror and tragedy of Kiss with a Fist.

Sexism is a source of endless personal confusion for us all. Think, for example, of the little boy who loves his daddy and wants to grow up to be just like him. In that very wish, the little boy is buying into the inequality that favours men over women. And, however caring and fair-minded his father is, he still benefits from a system that favours men, and so too will his son when he grows up. Or consider the little boy who loves his Mum, loves cooking and wants to grow up to be just like her. Just think of the trouble that child is likely to face.

In all our lives, we all, every one of us, negotiate the contradictions between love and sexist inequality. Consider the following two examples –

Today, most young couples know the sex of their child before s/he is born. From the moment the child is sexed, it is often named, and the pink/blue regime begins. Baby merchandise is bought, and parental dreams are fashioned according to the conventions and idioms of the day. Then, after they are born, little boys are handled more robustly than little girls, are exposed to louder music and more noise. They are also encouraged to take more risks, run faster and climb more trees. Sure, parents love their little girls and little boys equally, but their children’s experiences of gender inequality started long ago in the womb. (Why in the womb, when examples are from outside it?)

A second example is romantic lovemaking. However exciting and magnificent a particular experience is, and however much we lose ourselves in our lovers, inequality isn’t far away. First, there are always lurking questions about who’s on top, and who has come. And there are other nagging questions: am I pretty enough, or rich enough, or smart, or kinky enough?  And are you good enough for me? And what are your expectations – a fun fuck in the back of a car? Or silk sheets and breakfast in bed? And most important of all, who has to go to work in the morning? And who will take the kids to school?

Of course, there are typically differences between women’s and men’s bodies. Some people have dicks, others have vaginas, breasts and so on. But these differences, like differences of skin colour, are really of no great importance compared with the similarities between our bodies – our bones, blood, metabolism, intelligence and emotions.

Men and women are far more alike than they are different. But we can very easily forget this when we are in the grips of a sexist ideology. What sexist ideologies do is make it seem like women and men are absolutely different from each other, as if one is from Venus, the other from Mars.

Sexism occurs when gendered differences – between ‘women’ and ‘men’, but also between ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ – are socially marked in ways we can’t ignore. And they are linked to a presumption that men are superior to women. Gender is marked in all those moments – from a fleeting gesture to outright abuse – when someone, or something, makes you aware of yourself – not simply as a person, but as a woman, or a man, or as straight or gay.

Gender marking makes you aware of the boxes, and squeezes you into one. Sometimes gender is marked in ways that make us feel good about ourselves – a nice haircut, a smart suit, someone holding open a door or someone flirting with us. Then we are made to feel like ‘a natural woman’, or queer and sexy, or a cool dude. Such moments may be quite benign, but they are still moments when gender is marked.

More often, much more often, gender is marked in ways that make us feel bad, perhaps very bad, about ourselves. Even the milder forms of gender marking inscribe sexism deep in our souls. We feel bad about ourselves when we hear a homophobic remark, when someone jokes that ‘all men are bastards’ or someone says ‘you’re behaving just like a woman’. It is the same when a bullying colleague sneers and makes us feel ugly, or stupid, or a failure. We all know those moments.

Gender marking comes into play when a class elite want to hide their privilege by encouraging us to focus and fight among ourselves. So, it is indeed the case that most men are relatively better off than most women of the same class. That is exactly how the ideology works. And the justifications and rationalisations of this inequality between brothers and sisters and husbands and wives become an endless source of domestic discord, just like unequal pay at work, or discriminatory laws bedevil other relations between women and men.

Sexism confuses us by contaminating our joy and pleasure of love, and everything we like about ourselves and others, with inequality. This makes it hard to think clearly about our lives and the world we live in and serves to naturalise inequality incredibly well. The sexist conundrums, whether about parenting or romance, work or play, are charged with emotional and intellectual confusion. They are also the enormously rich material from which the ruling class shapes and fashions various sexisms to fit their purpose. That is what sexism does.

Sexual Violence

Approaching sexism in this way also opens up an analytical space to think about three quite different things – violence per se, sexuality and sexual violence. These are confused in the ideologies used to naturalise class inequality.

Our emotions are not discrete, nor easily labelled and tidily packaged away. Our feelings of affection and love always include elements of sexual desire. Such overlapping emotions can be a source of creativity and great joy and people widely manage the ambiguity that these overlapping emotions pose via rituals and rules.

In class societies, however, confusions between love, attraction, excitement and desire simultaneously threaten class control and offer another means of it. Elites are committed to a rigid interpretation of essentialised categories because that’s how stereotypes work and class boundaries are maintained. This means that people who blur the categories must be suppressed, because they show up the lies behind class and gender inequality. What happens depends on who exactly is breaking the rules and who is charged with enforcing them, but most often all the people who differ from the idealised norms – homosexuals, trans people, bossy ‘big-balled’ women, and cuckolded, henpecked men – are ridiculed and punished, with violence or with exile. And they are sometimes killed.

Of course, there are always questions of interpretation and relative power and resistance. But the slide from innocence to sexual violence can be both imperceptible and very nasty indeed. But what is certain is that however the arbitrary distinctions are marked, they have a sexual charge because we are all sexual beings. And when violence is used to mark and distinguish between intense, overlapping emotions in terms of what is licit and what it not, that violence becomes an extremely powerful tool of social control.

Consider just a few examples. In Ireland from the 18th to the late 20th centuries, ‘Fallen’ women (but almost never their male lovers) were shamed, and often terribly punished for conceiving a child out of wedlock, as was the real and terrible fate of the young girls banished to and enslaved in the Magdalene Laundries. Meanwhile, in the UK, vulnerable girls and boys have historically been subjected to rape and violent abuse, but only now are the systematic cover-ups of these horrors by senior officials and managers in the government, social services and the police being exposed in North Wales, Jersey, Rochdale, Oxford and Rotherham. It is also apparent that some politicians regularly use homophobia and systematically target lesbians and gay men to claim political legitimacy, while extreme sexual violence is an aspect of the most horrific prison regimes, including that of Abu-Ghraib.

In this respect, it is important to consider the hierarchy in place across the class divide, whether this is manifested in the relationship between the boss and the employee or the lady and her maid. Women and men from the ruling classes manage the rhetoric and practices of gendering between classes with ferocity and great care. After all, this is an important part of how their superior position is created and sustained.

But because no social class is homogenous, it is also important to think about relations within classes as well. Within any class, men will mostly dominate women. However, because ruling class men and women benefit enormously from class inequality, they have a very strong shared interest in managing sexism to their mutual advantage out of sight of the hoi polloi. Sometimes, however, there is a breach case, and things go awry and ordinary folk get a glimpse of how sexism works within the ruling class. That’s the Princess Diana story.

An intra-class perspective is also important when we think about the so-called ‘peasantry’ or the working class. Here too gender hierarchies that privilege straight men over gay men and most women are likely to dominate people’s experiences. But it is also important to notice the subtleties of relative privilege: within any class, there will always be some people who are more successful, or more beautiful or harder-working than others.

Unequal relations between people of the same class – women and men in relation to each other, between women or between men – are an intrinsic part of class society. And intra-class inequality feeds into, and serves to naturalise, class relations between an elite and those who work for them. Here, too, sexism – systematic gendered inequality – is not something that has to be explained away or denied. Sexism is how the system works.

In practice, of course, we experience the harms of gender, race and other inequalities simultaneously, thus compounding the ways we can be confused and distracted from seeing the great inequalities in the system between ourselves and the ruling class.

Clinging to class privilege

Class inequality is about the power to exploit the great majority of ordinary people who do the work in any class society. We have suggested that all ruling classes use violence, but also ideologies of racism and especially sexism, to legitimise privilege. The reasons they do so are economic.

The ruling class project in any era is to manage the economy to keep themselves in power. And when something important changes in an economy, it is likely to challenge elite power – new technologies appear or new people grab control of raw materials, or manage to take over established businesses or banks. When this happens, the ruling class move to protect themselves as swiftly and effectively as they can.

We know the drivers of social change are economic. Ruling classes respond to the threat of competition in many ways. They may invest in coalmines, railroads and hedge funds, or fight oil wars in the Middle East to protect their privilege. Ruling elites are always looking for new sources of wealth and are quick to occupy positions that are commensurate with new forms of power. We also know that hanging onto class power is a ruthless business – today, the utter disregard for threat of climate chaos is a clear measure of that (Klein, 2014).

Most of the history we are taught in school concerns how, in any period, a ruling class responds to economic change and threats to their economic power. Then, as they respond, class relations also change. In turn, the ruling elite also try to reshape gender relations to better fit the new forms of class inequality, thereby naturalising these new forms of unequal class relations.

So, for instance, particular sets of sexist ideas fitted some feudal societies – the glorification of knights, ladies and chivalry and the cult of thugs on horseback. Those ideas changed as that form of feudalism changed.

Other sexist ideas justify changing forms of capitalist economy. During the two World Wars of the twentieth century, governments responded to the demands of their war economies by moving men to the frontlines and encouraging women to take up ‘men’s work’ on the land, in the public services and in factories.

Given the centrality of waged labour in capitalism, the changing patterns between women’s domestic work or work for wages is not surprising. At each turn, ideologies of the family, and women’s autonomy have changed too: in the late 19th century, the ‘dutiful’ wives of men of the new professional middle class were encouraged to become domestic managers, care for their children and support their ‘breadwinner’ husbands. But unless we look carefully, we are apt to miss the many other young women who became factory workers or entered domestic service and worked for wages in the households of the new middle class.

Recognising a connection between the economy and the class interests that sexism serves offers us a way to explain how and why gender relations change. In this respect, the history of neoliberalism presents a clear picture of a top-down political project adopted by a capitalist ruling class in response to an economic crisis (Neale, 2004 and Klein, 2008). By focusing on neoliberalism, it is indeed easy to see how changes in the economy come first and then drive the ways gender relations are realigned to fit with new economic imperatives.

Not all changes have been bad. For some, living standards have improved and longevity has increased. But these benefits are not universal. Other heartening changes have been forced on the ruling class by popular resistance, as has been the case with the gay movement and now gay marriage. However, most changes have increased inequality, such as neoliberal capitalists have, over the past forty years, sought to privatise the welfare state, and deregulate banking, tax laws, and legal protections at work, to squeeze more profit from the system.

As inequality has increased, gender differences have become more sharply marked, with gender relations the focus of political attention. Thus, debates over abortion and birth control – battles we thought were long won – have re-emerged. In the UK, cuts in legal aid have made women facing domestic violence even more vulnerable than before. In Britain, even breastfeeding in public has again become a political issue. Similarly, across Europe, there are new debates about sex work, sex trafficking and pornography which reshape sexism and reconfigure gendered differences in ways that fit the newest phases of the neoliberal global economy, while comparable processes are going on in China, India and elsewhere.

Other neoliberal changes have had other, often very confusing, consequences. In the universities, it is true that women and men are more equal compared to forty years ago. As members of a professional class, we are part of an educated 20% of the population: men and women who have been co-opted and rewarded by neoliberalism and drawn closer to the ruling class. Obama’s presidency was part of this process.

But just as women’s liberation liberated some women, it ensnared others. And these same recent gains by the educated 20% also serve to make the professional class ignorant about the 80% of working class women – along with working class men, black working class women and men, and working class children (boys and girls, and white and black) – who have been terribly hurt by austerity, benefit cuts, the selling off of public housing, the end of free school meals and an increase in the prison population.

Neoliberals have also done everything they can to push more people into the workforce for lower pay. They’ve achieved this through actions such as attacking and weakening labour unions and introducing zero-hour contracts. These changes have had the direct effect of increasing working-class poverty. They have also greatly altered conventional understandings of working-class masculinities concerning responsible family breadwinners. This has led the adverse consequences of poverty for children to be recast as parenting failures. Many working-class men find themselves unemployed or underemployed. ‘Good’ women are those who ‘work (for wages)’, often in part-time, poorly paid jobs, to make sure their households can scrape by, while women who stay at home to look after young children are said to be feckless, lazy and labelled scroungers or ‘benefit cheats’.

The recent gains also serve to make the professional class unable to recognise the enormous numbers of people around the world whose lives have become much harder over the past forty years, often in new ways. In the Philippines, many of the new migrants are women who leave their husbands caring for children in Manila while they work as maids in Hong Kong or in the Gulf, or keep hospitals running in the US and UK. It is mostly young Bangladeshi women who work in the sweatshops of Dacca. And when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed it was most of the 1,300 plus people who died were young women, while another 2,500 (again, mostly young women) were terribly injured.

Elsewhere, the elite of the owning class and their enforcers, along with managers and others who identify with them or work for them, have also deliberately reconfigured gendered ideologies and practices to defend, and sometimes deepen, inequality. For instance, the neoliberal ruling class has increased the divide and rule rhetoric of racism, immigration and Islamophobia, often while trying to pretend they are doing nothing of the sort.

States have always been brutal, but present neoliberal ruling elites seem far less embarrassed about the practices of torture and extra-legal state terrorism than the Western elites after the Second World War were. We would argue that this increased ruthlessness and systemic violence reflects the greater inequality that is central to the neo-liberal political economy.

Masculinities and Protecting Women

Here, we can consider the slight of hand involved in the rhetoric of ‘protecting women’.

‘Protecting Afghan women’ was the actual phrase Cherie Blair and Laura Bush used at the beginning of the American war in Afghanistan in 2001. In a quite calculated and coordinated fashion, they were using a feminist-sounding, but sexist and Islamophobic, ideology to legitimise an imperial war.

The success of the Afghan resistance fighting a guerrilla war against overwhelming military odds tells us that ordinary Afghan women – the mothers, sisters, wives, daughters of the very Afghan men the NATO bombs were killing – have hated the foreign occupation of their country just as much as the men. And it is not as if the drones haven’t targeted and bombs haven’t fallen on women too.[8]

‘Protecting women’ is also a phrase used by UK politicians to talk about trafficking and sex work. Here too ‘protecting women’ is part of a sexist ideology manipulated by the ruling class. Discussions about trafficking and sex work get a great deal of media attention. They reinforce ideas of difference between men and women. They also carry with them all kinds of racist ideas about immigrants. And at their base, they are debates about the legality, and illegality, of low-waged work and the exploitation of the people who do that work.[9]

Perhaps most crucially, the rhetoric of ‘protecting women’ acts as a smokescreen and diverts our attention from the vulnerable men, women and children who have not been protected – from sexual abuse by Catholic priests around the world, or from the elite or their enforcers in Britain. The response of the elite and their managers (the Pope and his Archbishops) has been to cover up rather than show concern. And these cover ups are far less gendered than classed. Many women have been involved: Catholic nuns, social workers, teachers, police officers, media managers and politicians. The elite and the enforcers of class power, both women and men, are the ones who have been hiding the truth.[10]

Abuse and resistance

Of course, the sexual regimes mandated by senior officers and managers are contested. People object. But the vulnerable people who are most harmed by systemic violence are exactly those people who are least able to resist. That is the logic of power – those with it pick on the weak and often toy with our need to be loved and cherished.

Within a sexist institution there will always be people who disapprove of what they see.[11] Often they are junior people. Perhaps they simply believe in keeping to the rules. But whatever their motives, their own previous silence, institutional loyalty and their fear of losing their jobs are all likely to limit what they can do. Everyone knows that whistle-blowers are usually discredited and likely to pay a considerable personal price.

Elsewhere, wherever constraints and sanctions are less formidable, ordinary people will fight against sexism, sexual abuse and violence. In effect, what we see is that struggles over sexual violence are also struggles between the people who run institutions and the rest of us. They are examples of that old-fashioned thing – class struggle!

The gathering storm

The revelations about the Catholic church began and were amplified by a wave of other movements around the world: some have targeted specific forms of sexual abuse, while others, like those of the Arab Spring, have undertaken generic protests against political oppression and therefore also against the sexisms and racisms that thrive in tyrannous regimes. In the Middle-East and elsewhere, responses of the ruling class to such movements have been horrifically violent but, elsewhere, the deflection strategies of the ruling class have begun to lose their power. In India, the US and the UK, campaigns against sexual violence have acquired a critical mass and are beginning to gain traction. A look at the newspapers alone suggests that journalists are exposing abuse. However, if you look carefully, everywhere that you hear about systematic abuse, you will find organisation by survivors – often informal, usually local, and sometimes on social media.

The most salient struggles against sexual violence in North America, Europe and Australia have been by groups of people who were abused as children by Catholic priests. They persevered for many years but were finally able to capture media attention and have served to deeply shock the wider public.

There have also been smaller, but widespread, student protests in the United States, particularly in the elite universities. The problem at these Ivy League colleges was not confusion about consent, a student rape culture or flawed disciplinary processes. It was that standard university policy did nothing to discipline rapists.[12]

In Britain, the high-profile case of the serial abuser Jimmy Saville was blown open when a journalist talked to a group of older women who had all been abused by Saville in the same facility for teenage girls. They had remained in contact with each other and encouraged each other to speak out.

In India, many people know about the Pink Sari movement in UP led by Sampat Pal, which mobilises large numbers of women to protest at rapists, wife beaters and bullying by upper castes and rich politicians. Collective organisation has begun to explode in new forms of protest, especially following the rape and murder of a young physiotherapist in December 2013.[13]

These are all examples of the contested relation of class, and the gendered consequences of that contest. Because class inequality lies behind gender inequality, this means that struggles over gender inequality or racism rapidly become class struggles as well. These struggles are just some of the ways in which people actively resist inequality and class power. But, at each turn, we also need to remember that whenever we try to change something, we immediately run into the mechanisms of class power.[14] That is why it is so hard, and why it has to be done.


Nancy Lindisfarne taught social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London for many years. She has done anthropological fieldwork in Iran, Afghanistan, on practiced Islam in Turkey and among the Syrian bourgeoisie. Her publications include Bartered Brides: Politics, Gender and Marriage in an Afghan Tribal Society (Cambridge, 1991), and a book of short stories, Dancing in Damascus (SUNY, 2000). Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (co-edited with Andrea Cornwall, Routledge, 1994) was celebrated twenty years on  in the symposium ‘Revisiting Dislocating Masculinity’, held at the University of Sussex in July, 2014. This led to the publication of Masculinities under Neoliberalism (co-edited with Andrea Cornwall and Frank G. Karioris, Zed, 2016) and a second edition of Dislocating Masculinity in 2016.

Jonathan Neale studied social anthropology at LSE, doing fieldwork with Afghan nomads, and social history at Warwick, writing a thesis on mutinies in the eighteenth century Royal Navy. He writes plays, novels and non-fiction, including books on the Vietnam War, the history of Sherpa climbers, the politics of climate change, the anti-capitalist protests in Genoa, and neoliberalism in America. Jonathan worked for nine years as an abortion counsellor in a feminist collective, and for four years as an HIV counsellor in the NHS. He has been the international secretary of the Campaign against Climate Change and the editor of One Million Climate Jobs.

Nancy and Jonathan blog about gender, class and sexual violence at Anne Bonny Pirate –


[1] See Cornwall Andrea and Nancy Lindisfarne, eds. Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (London: Routledge, 1994/2017); Cornwall, Andrea, Frank G. Karioris, Nancy Lindisfarne, eds., Masculinities under Neoliberalism (London: Zed, 2017). This paper was given at the following institutions: the first International Symposium of Men and Masculinities in Izmir, September 2014; the Institute of Development Studies lecture series at the University of Sussex, November 2014; the International Gender Studies Centre, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, January 2015; and at the Center for Women Studies, Eastern Mediterranean University, March 2015 and published in Kadin/Woman 2000 2016, 17: 1-17. An earlier, extended version of the argument can be seen in Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, Class, Gender and Neoliberalism, 2014, at, and on our blog – Many people have helped us think through these ideas. Here we owe particular thanks to Nick Evans, Joe Hayns-Worthington, Frank Karioris, and Ross Wignall.

[2] Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013; Martin Jones, Feast: Why Humans Share Food, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007:[2] Richard Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1979; and Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Domination, Chicago: Haymarket, 2008; Laura Rival, Trekking through History: the Huaoroni of Amazonia Ecuador (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) and Huaoroni Transformations in Twenty-First Century Ecuador (2nd Ed., Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2016); Shanshan Du, “Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs”: Gender Unity & Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwest China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[3] See Joanna Overing, ‘Men Control Women? The “Catch 22’’ in the Analysis of Gender’, International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 1, 2: pp.135-56; Joanna Overing, ‘Styles of Manhood: An Amazonian Contrast in Tranquillity and Violence’, in Signe Howell & Roy Willis, (eds.), Societies at Peace: Anthropological Perspectives, London: Routledge, 1989, pp.79-99; and Joanna Overing Kaplan, The Piaroa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975. See also Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. (This is an extended account of how the unexamined assumptions of Western anthropologists and feminist scholars widely pervade and have distorted Melanesian ethnography.)

[4] This top-down perspective is particularly familiar to activists, historians and ethnographers of gender and race. Thus, as Danielle L. McGuire explains, Rosa Parks knew deeply and from the beginning that sexual violence was at the core of white supremacy. See At the Dark End of the Street. Black Women, Rape and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. 2011, New York: Vintage.

[5] For details on the transition to grain agriculture and the rise of class societies and the state, see Flannery and Marcus and Jones (as above), and the work of James C. Scott, particularly Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, 2018, New Haven: Yale University Press. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (2010: Chicago: Haymarket) is very good on the mixture of forms of exploitation used by elites.

[6] Žižek, Slavoj, Violence (2009: London: Profile).

[7] For a case study that develops these ideas in terms of Pashtun politics, see Nancy Lindisfarne, ‘Exceptional Pashtuns? Class, Politics, Imperialism and Historiography’, in Marsden, Magnus and Benjamin Hopkins, eds., Beyond Swat: History and Power along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier, 2012, London: Hurst, 34 pp.

[8] Nancy Lindisfarne, 2008, ‘Culture Wars’, Anthropology Today, 24/3, 3-4.

[9] See Laura Maria Agustin, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, London: Zed, 2007; Christine Chin, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2007; Kemala Kempadoo, ed., Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights, Boulder: Paradigm, 2005; and Anna Morcom, Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion, Londo: Hurst, 2013.

[10] David Yallop’s Beyond Belief: The Catholic Church and the Child Abuse Scandal (2010, London: Constable and Robinson) is the best book on abuse in the Catholic Church, while Dan Davies’ In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville is the best source on the paedophile abuser Jimmy Saville (2016: London: Quercus). Also see Simon Danczuk’s Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith (2014: London: Biteback) for an account of systemic abuse covered up at the top of British society.

[11]  See Lindisfarne and Neale for conflicts and debates among police, social workers, and other professionals in Oxfordshire.

Also: .

[12] Caitlin Flanagan, ‘The Dark Power of the Fraternities’, The Atlantic, March, 2014, pp.72-91, describes the considerable levels of general violence associated with fraternity cultures where sexual assaults are also common. What is striking about elite crimes of all kinds, including rape, is that they are covered up by mainstream institutions and the law. Thus, Anna Krien has written about such a cover-up in the hyper-masculine world of Australian rugby in Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport, London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014.

[13] See Amana Fontanella-Khan, Pink Sari Revolution, New York: W. W. Norton, 2013, and Hokkolorob: Police and TMC brutality on students and protesters at Jadavpur University on youtube for 11 minutes of film of the night time fighting; Davijot Ghoshal, A brief history of #Hokkolorob, the hashtag that shook Kolkata,, 9 October 2014; ‘Students Protest in Jadavpur University Campus’, The Hindu, 22 September 2014; and Tithi Bhattacharya, ‘India: Students declare “let there be uproar!”’, Green Left, 13 October 2014. The case of the Badaun girls, teenage cousins found dead from hanging, was seen as a representation of all that was wrong with India’s patriarchal culture. There was a public outcry when investigators declared the girls had killed themselves and that ‘no rape or abduction was suspected’ (Gardiner Harris, ‘Grisly death of 2 Indian girls is found to be suicide’, International New York Times, 28 November 2014, p.7).

[14]  We take this idea from Patrick Bond in conversation.

Image shows Christine Blasey Ford at the Senate judiciary committee hearing (Thursday 27 September 2018), testifying against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court on grounds of sexual assault. Taken from the Democracy Now! website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


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