Silent No Longer: Confronting Sexual Violence in the Left

Image by Suzy X.
Image by Suzy X.

Content Warning: Experiences of sexual violence and victim blaming.

In 2012, a member of the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP) came forward saying she had been raped and sexually harassed by the former National Secretary of the organisation, Martin Smith. The internal ‘investigation’ which followed demonstrated a number of common ways in which sexual violence is ignored and those who experience it are demonised. Some of the members of the Disputes Committee chosen to investigate the claim were close friends of Smith. The woman who had come forward was questioned about her sexual history and alcohol use. She was made to feel that members of the Disputes Committee thought she was “a slut who asked for it”. The Disputes Committee concluded that the accusation that Smith had raped and harassed her was “not proven.” Four members of the SWP who discussed their misgivings about the Committee’s decision on Facebook were expelled from the group. The woman who had accused Smith was not allowed to attend the SWP’s conference to contest the Disputes Committee’s decision. The SWP’s response to this case resulted in hundreds of members resigning. Meanwhile, Solidarity (an Australian affiliate of the SWP) labelled the SWP’s investigation of the rape claim “scrupulously fair”.

While there was a significant outcry amongst people in left-wing circles about the way members of the SWP responded to sexual violence within their group, there was little reflection on the fact that many other left-wing organisations respond in a similarly toxic way. The lack of internal democracy within the SWP certainly hindered the efforts of those seeking change within the organisation, but informal social processes influenced by misogynist ideas about sexual violence can be just as destructive to the lives of sexual violence survivors.

Gendered violence is a key way in which women’s oppression is maintained in our patriarchal society. In Australia, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men over the age of 15 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 years (1). Violence perpetrated by men is the leading cause of preventable death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 (2). Aboriginal women, poor women, women of differing abilities, and sex and gender diverse people are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence.

All too often, survivors of sexual violence are greeted with disbelief, anger, and defensiveness when they should be believed and supported. This happens in left-wing groups, our social movements, our friendship circles, our workplaces, and countless other places in society. While most left-wing groups and movements share a stated opposition to sexism, this does not make them immune to the misogynist assumptions which underlie victim blaming and which often come up when people are confronted by sexual violence committed by their friends or political comrades.

I was raped by someone who was involved in the Melbourne anarchist milieu in 2010. It was a horrible, frightening experience, made worse by the fact that it was someone who I had trusted as a friend and a political comrade. I was lucky, though. The friends, family members and people in the anarchist milieu I told about my experience believed me and the person who assaulted me is no longer welcome in many of Melbourne’s political spaces. I know too many people who have had similar experiences, but who have been called liars, ignored, lost friends and comrades, or been forced to remain silent. I can’t imagine how much harder it is for people who’ve survived sexual violence, and then been treated like this by those they thought they could trust, to keep on going.

When someone tells their friends or political comrades that they have experienced sexual violence, there are a number of common responses. Sometimes survivors who come forward are completely ignored. People who know the person who perpetrated sexual violence will say that they ‘don’t want to take sides’ and want to remain ‘neutral.’ Survivors are told that confronting a perpetrator of sexual violence will cause division in the movement or organisation. The personalities, political beliefs, lifestyles and appearance of survivors of sexual violence are scrutinised in minute detail. Survivors of sexual violence are called ‘crazy’ or seen as too emotional. If a survivor speaks out about violence they will often be presented as vindictively trying to wreck a perpetrator’s reputation. Perpetrators are frequently defended as being a ‘good person’ or a ‘good organiser’, as though this should excuse their violence. People attempt to justify their inaction by saying that they don’t want to act based on ‘rumours’ and that we should presume that a person accused of perpetrating sexual violence is ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Some activists tell survivors not to go to the police, because of their role in supporting state oppression, but all too often provide no alternative forms of support.

These attitudes are used to justify a status quo within the left and within broader society in which the interests of those who perpetrate sexual violence are prioritised over those who are survivors of sexual violence. Part of the problem with many responses to sexual violence is that we have absorbed various legalistic ideas from state criminal ‘justice’ systems which are sexist and are used to justify legal inaction. For instance, the idea that we shouldn’t rush to judge a person accused of committing violence and should instead presume that they are innocent. This flawed idea is used by many to argue that we should not take the word of survivors when they tell us they have experienced sexual violence. However, as Lisbeth Latham comments in a recent piece on the SWP, “If we think of the refrain ‘people accused of rape are innocent until proven guilty’ then the opposing logic also at play is that those marking allegations of rape ‘are guilty of lying about the allegation until proven innocent.’ Defendants and their supporters (both legal and extra-legal) focus their energy not on proving innocence, but on undermining the credibility of the survivor.” We need to reject the state’s narrative about how we should deal with accusations of sexual violence.

It is crucially important for us to point out that when we perpetuate these ideas about sexual violence we are making a political choice which has disastrous consequences for survivors of sexual violence. We know that false accusations of sexual violence are incredibly rare. We know that forcing survivors to jump through endless hoops by demanding they provide ‘proof’ before we listen to and believe them is incredibly harmful and makes it extremely difficult or them to speak out about sexual violence. We know that our continual inaction allows perpetrators to continue abusing people within our communities with impunity. And we know that how we respond to sexual violence currently is killing our political organisations and movements, and frustrating their capacity to challenge sexism, racism, capitalism, and other forms of oppression and exploitation.

So, here’s what I think needs to happen: We need to make a political choice to believe survivors of violence. We need to bring gendered violence out into the open by treating survivors with trust and compassion, rather than hostility. We need to take people at their word when they tell us that they have experienced violence, including gendered and sexual violence, without requiring them to tell us about every little detail of what happened. And more than this, we need to make a choice to prioritise survivors in our political work. This means that we should have survivor-centred responses to sexual violence – where the needs and desires of survivors determine our response. We need to be open to excluding people responsible for sexual violence, at the discretion of the survivor, from our political spaces, or ganisations, and movements. And we need to be prepared to support survivors in engaging with the people who harmed them through accountability processes, if that is what they’d like to do. Most of all, though, we need to make it a political priority to actively support sexual violence survivors through all of the personal and political challenges that come in the aftermath of being assaulted.

Asking a perpetrator to leave an organisation or political space on the word of a survivor is often a point which divides people within the left. We have to remember that people are not entitled to be involved in our political spaces. Many of us would accept the need to reject an active Liberal Party member who wanted to join a radical political group based on their oppressive ideology. We need to be open to taking the same approach to those whose actions are a form of violent oppression. In my experience, knowing that I am unlikely to run into the person who raped me at a political space has made a world of difference to my ongoing recovery, especially in environments where I know I would be supported by those around me if I did see him. Asking someone to leave our spaces does not deny them their freedom or safety. But if we refuse to ask perpetrators to leave our spaces we are effectively risking the safety of survivors and forcing many survivors to self-exclude. Moreover, as women are a significant majority of sexual violence survivors, not dealing with sexual violence has the effect of reinforcing women’s oppression in our movements.

Gendered violence does not occur in a social vacuum – any response we make within our organisations and movements will be limited in scope. We will never be truly safe or free from violence while we live in a society fundamentally shaped by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Excluding perpetrators from our spaces can enable survivors to feel relatively safe in our movements, but it doesn’t prevent sexual violence from being committed in the first place or in other areas of society. To create a society in which sexual violence is no longer a tool of misogynist and racist oppression we need structural systemic change – in short, a revolution.

An essential part of fighting rape culture involves identifying these structural systems of oppression and exploitation which allow people to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity. We need to fight the dominant ideologies which suggest that some people deserve to be victims of violence, and bear responsibility for the harm that is done to them – whether because of their clothes, race, gender identity; or because they are a refugee, poor, in prison, or a sex worker. Yet it is not enough to merely struggle against sexism and sexual violence at a structural or ideological level. If we are ever going to build the collective power required to challenge these systems of oppression we must make a committed effort to challenge violence and other actions which reinforce oppression within our political organisations, our social movements, our friendship groups and all other areas of life.

Why would anyone believe talk of a post-revolutionary society without sexism if we cannot support survivors of sexual violence in our midst and take a stand against those who perpetrate gendered violence among us?

There are tentative signs of a growing movement against sexual violence on the left. In 2004, three women were raped at a large punk festival in Philadelphia in the US. The concert organisers established two collectives to support the survivors and hold the rapists to account. The collectives became Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up which continued this work for a period of six years. Organisers of the 2012 Toronto and New York Anarchist bookfairs asked people who had been accused of sexual violence, and who were not actively engaging in some sort of accountability process, to not attend the events. Closer to home, groups like A World Without Sexual Assault and Stepping Up in Melbourne have provided support to survivors, facilitated accountability processes, and run awareness-raising workshops.

We need to continue to build on these political gains in our organising in Melbourne. One new project that that I am excited about aims to bring together collective wisdom about how organisations can respond to sexual violence in a way which genuinely supports survivors. This website resource will also gather together ideas about how tools like grievance collectives can be used to confront other oppressive behaviour, such as racist or sexist conduct. We will be inviting anarchist, socialist, social justice, environmental and other activist groups to commit to acting in accordance with this advice. As part of this commitment, groups will need to run workshops where their members can discuss practical ways they can avoid perpetuating destructive responses to sexual violence and avoid reinforcing systemic oppression. (If you’re interested in getting involved in this project, contact Anarchist Affinity and we’ll pass your details on to the organising collective).

Conclusion

For too long sexual violence survivors have been sacrificed at the altar of ‘movement building.’ This approach has a massively destructive impact on survivors, but it also prevents us from creating the kind of movements that we need. We must create social movements which build the revolutionary collective power of the working classes to confront all systems of oppression and exploitation. But to do this we need to start practicing what we preach. We need to challenge misogynist attitudes about sexual violence within our midst and create enduring structures which allow us to support survivors and hold perpetrators to account. Only then can we genuinely claim to be fighting for anarchism and social justice.

Resources

‘What is rape apologism?’

Em BC, ‘Misogyny and the left – we need to start practicing what we preach’

‘Betrayal – a critical analysis of rape culture in anarchist subcultures’

Endnotes

(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey, 2006.

(2) VicHealth (2004) ‘The Health Costs of Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence.’

15 thoughts on “Silent No Longer: Confronting Sexual Violence in the Left

  1. This is amazing, unfortunately I recognise so much of this behaviour in relation to something I/we are currently dealing with in my city. Thank you for writing this, I am going to circulate to encourage others to reflect on their own behaviour 🙂

  2. There’s a lower level form of sexual misconduct on the left that is also worth discussing. Being involved sexually with a leading comrade, then discarded and, even more hurtfully, excluded from group functions from that point on. This behaviour is predatory and thrives on secrecy. One solution could be for those in leading roles to disclose their sexual relationships. What do you think?

    • I would suggest that considering the pervasive tendency that women are often the minority is radical circles, that once a relationship does breakdown, the male comrade step out for whatever time necessary. This is of course a big ask when particular members are important for the group. But I agree, Julie. Notifying fellow comrades about sexual relationships in a group is extremely important.

      Reminds me of this sentiment:

      “We need it to be the exception, not the rule, that the woman leaves the scene when a hetero couple breaks up. We need people not to dismiss feminism as liberal bullshit, or an excuse to attack dudes. We need folks to make accountability a priority. We need community.”

      • After the end of a major relationship I withdrew from most spaces I was active in. This was because the end of the relationship would reduce the effectiveness of the organisations, and because I viewed myself as the less active and useful participant. (I also didn’t want the aggro being in the same orgs would cause, or to see my ex.) I think this was the correct decision for me. I don’t think its a good illustration of Julia’s point about negative behaviour from those in leading roles. But it is in line with what Mia argued for. And I think it was healthier for the organisations.

      • When I was an idealistic 18 year old three prominent members of the left tried to rape me. I doubt they thought it was a rape attempt. They would have seen it as me unsportingly refusing to take part in a gang bang that was sprung on me and that I should have been grateful for the opportunity! The effect was I never went near joining any left group I was so disgusted. Luckily within two years feminism blossomed about me. Now in my maturity this is the first time I’ve ever approached the idea again! I am pretty appalled this is still an issue!

    • of course they should disclose their sexual relationships. why wouldn’t they? Shame – because it is someone else’s partner? Secretive power plays? Obviously no good. Keeping options open in case a more useful or attractive potential partner turns up? deplorable but happens all the time, anywhere there is a hierachy. What is good about anarchism? no hierachy!

  3. I agree that is a big problem. I think women being pushed out of an organisation after a break up is also often way more deliberate than people assume too. I’ve seen men talk about how women (in general) always leave groups after a break up because of how they are socialised or because they just got involved because of the relationship. Then I’ve them basically tell ex partners to leave the group, or bully them till they leave.

    Another problem is that when 2 members of a group end up in a relationship the groups starts treating them as a unit. Which usually means only talking to the man and assuming he’ll tell the woman everything or that he speaks for her. When this happened to me I brought it up directly with people and was told that *I* needed to make more effort to contact people find out what was going on.

    Still though, the idea of having to inform a group when you are in a relationship really scares me. Partly because as a woman I don’t always want everyone to know if I’m in a relationship. If it’s a serious relationship they are likely to know anyway. But if it’s a casual relationship I think people being informed might lead to slut-shaming. Plus it just feels like a violation of privacy having my personal life discussed as part of a group.

    I don’t think there are easy solutions to this problem. One might be to have anti-patriarchy caucuses where problems can be brought up when they occur.

  4. Excellent article on rape culture in anarchist/leftist spaces. I especially agree on this part:

    Asking someone to leave our spaces does not deny them their freedom or safety. But if we refuse to ask perpetrators to leave our spaces we are effectively risking the safety of survivors and forcing many survivors to self-exclude.

  5. This is interesting. I’m from Britain, where the SWP is from (I guess), and I got linked to this from a comrade on social media. I knew about the SWP meltdown but I didn’t know the nitty-gritty of it. I think it has quite seriously affected the organisation. However, according to what comrades say, it is also an organisation which focuses massively on recruitment, and blind activism rather than discussion: so there may be people who have no idea, or dismiss it – as somebody commented, as ‘renegade liberalism’.

    I think it is a pressing issue to erradicate sexism on the left, and I want to contribute to it. It is a complete detriment for so-called revolutionaries to be completely tied to it. It’s also completely repulsive, and revolutionaries cannot address building a better society without discarding it.

    My view, which comes from personal experience (what I have learnt from my own development ideologically and whatever), is that sexism is massively bound up with sex, which I think draws ideas that anti-sexist activists would reject on grounds of being morally conservative. What I mean is that it’s regular for so-called ‘extraordinary’ people – men in this case – like artists, geniuses, and political activists with such radical ideas to be obsessed with sex. And/or able to get away with it due to the positions of power. Evidenced in the ‘scandals’ involving elected politicians, and ones like this. The obsession with sex is debatable – but according to what I’ve heard, wild parties plus loose sexual relations and so on are commonplace in the SWP.

    Now, I don’t care about wild parties or loose sexual relations. But with the present social conditions of sexism, they are misused, if you like, by sexists to fuck women, perpetuating their objectification of women and so on. Loose sexual relations need to be honest, apart from not being qualified as ‘bad’, with loose carrying that euphemism. People should be encouraged to form a meaningful relationship and fall in love, if you like, as well as there being no stigma attached to casual relationships, which – although liberating – can also serve to promote women as something that can be used and cast away. This is the prevalent message throughout all kinds of cultural shit… It was something I subscribed to until I fortunately fell in love. Then, whilst still in an unbroken chauvinist manner, I at least learned to empathise with and appreciate women somewhat.

    So, this is a quandary which I put out there. I would say that… generally, probably quite obviously… it should be unwritten law for everybody to respect members’ sexual relations if they learn about them, not gossip about or depreciate them publicly or semi-publicly. At the same time, it should be a ‘revolutionary ethic’ to encourage – nothing more – there being a basis of friendship in a relationship, so that the parties get much more out of it. Of course, it’s fine and a private choice for anybody to do otherwise, and hopefully the individuals will be sensible with it and not end up with the ex-girlfriend out of the group etc. In which case, yes, there should be anti-sexist regulations about this sort of thing in a group…

    • I used to live in London in early 80s and had friends and aquaintances in SWP and I’m frankly appalled to see that this sort of thing hasn’t been fixed up yet! Perhaps its something to do with the culture of that organziation? They weren’t anarchist. Then. They described themselves as Trots.

  6. I’m a recent arrival here but first thing that strikes me is that this is the topic that’s aroused nine replies, which points to something going on that had better be dealt with. Very happy to see its being brought up in the very first issue. (Although this is a playing field that I no longer disport myself in). I hope this continues. Secretive sex relationships, power games etc can be ruinous to any organiztion and a prime area where enemies can sneak in in do damage.

  7. Thank for writing this I’m dealing with a similar problem. I was having this exact debate today with a friend. Would you be ok with me linking this article for people to read? Because I think it’s really important! Thanks- Heather

    • Yes, that’d be OK. Something’s got out of hand for lack of attention here. Something people like me had taken for granted had packed up and left. Sexual liberation grew in our culture, Euro basic, over a couple of hundred years, via Romanticism, Individualism, Socialism, Atheism, Enlightenmentism, countless Revolutions and all; the works of very arty, scientific, political, ethical sorts of people from J-J Rousseau to D.H. Lawrence and back and beyond and the good word spread accelerating but not out of control on through the sexual liberation beatnik post WW2 scene till the inventions of 99%reliable contraception made it a safer sport for all, not just the bohemians and such thoughtful, sensitive, honest, open and considerate characters. After that sexual liberation became little more than a notice of open season for would-be rapists. In the nick of time, early 1970s Women’s Liberation arose. Next bit shortly.

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