Sunday, December 2, 2012

Misogyny and the left - we need to start practicing what we preach.

Guest post written by Em BC

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses rape, sexual assault, stalking.

I decided to write this after having a very difficult experience. Over the last few months a friend, her ex partner and I have been harassed, stalked, and our reputations dragged through the mud. Friends who have supported us have also been targeted by this harassment.

Most upsetting, the perpetrator has convinced a number of people to support his behavior, believing that he is the real victim. This is despite most of them not knowing any of us, never having bothered to find out the other side of the story, and the individual involved having a history of harassing women. These people, at the harassers word, have gone as far as to discuss whether my friend was raped, decide she was crying wolf, and call up the alleged perpetrator to inform him that they had decided she owed him an apology.

Some of the people who participated in this abuse are well known on the left. And many of them attended Reclaim the Night rallies, one even writing an article about it.

What has also been extremely upsetting is the silence of people who know what's going on. Throughout this process very few people were willing to stick their necks out, and those who did have also been subjected to harassment and bullying. Most people have stayed silent, remained on good terms with the harassers, or have stated that they consider what happened a personal matter.

Unfortunately, this isn't a one off experience. I've been an activist in the radical left for 16 years. During that time I have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, stalked and coerced into a relationship, all by supposedly radical, pro-feminist men. And I've seen this, and worse things, happen repeatedly to other women on the left. I am not only talking about sexual violence and harassment, but all the individual abuse that is directed at women on a routine basis and which undermines our ability to engage in activism.

I know that the left doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the same misogynist society that everyone else does. But what continually shocks and frustrates me is the collective response to these problems. At best people often just look the other way. At worst perpetrators are supported while victims are blamed and/or pressured to keep silent.

Most attempts at dealing with sexism tend to be through group education around feminism. Focusing on theoretical education, rather than individual behavior, is seen as addressing issues "politically". This kind of education is an invaluable tool for fighting sexism. But when abusive behavior is directed at female members of an organisation, refusing to address individual behavior is effectively putting the "education" of male comrades above the ability of females to participate in activism.

The argument that these are personal issues still comes up way too often. There was an incident where someone launched a brutal physical attack at his ex's partner. When the organisation involved was asked to do something about this, it was decided that this was a personal matter and not organisational "business". Maybe there was little that could be done in the circumstances. But how can we say we claim to defend women's rights if misogynist violence just isn't our business? If we allow people who commit it to be in positions of responsibility?

Harassment is too often simply placed in the too hard basket. When I was subjected to a minor sexual assault by a male comrade, the group involved decided that nothing could be done because it was too difficult politically at the time. I do under­­­­stand why those comrades involved felt this way. But the decision not to do anything had a much worse effect on me than the actual assault. To me the message that came across was that my safety and my bodily autonomy were secondary to organisational issues.

It seems that victims are expected to just get over abuse, and our reactions are quickly condemned. During the last few months, out of frustration, I've named the person harassing us, on Facebook. A lot of people have seen this as evidence that I was the one bullying him. I have also said some angry things about the organisation involved. I know this has lost me friends. I am sorry that my words hurt people that I respected and cared about. But in my defense, I just wish that people could understand how frustrated and powerless this situation has made me feel. I have been under constant stress, I've failed uni and it has affected my health. It's not just because of the harassment, but also because it has brought back constant memories of being coerced into an abusive relationship, which in many ways I experienced as 2 years of rape.

On the other hand, abusers are often protected and misogynist behavior is actually condoned. This is particularly the case where the perpetrator is a well known activist. People continually defended the person who I was recently harassed by as being a "hard worker", as if that made his behavior OK. They also excused his behavior as a result of stress due to being accused of harassment, yet showed no such sympathy to our responses to being harassed.

People often dismiss bad behavior against women who have the wrong politics or are part of the wrong group. Too many times male comrades have told me they don't care about sexism or violence against more privileged women. I have even heard of members of left groups using physical threats and aggression to intimidate female activists they disagree with.

Sometimes even in the most serious cases, victims are pressured not to go to the police. Activist communities are encouraged to sympathise with abusers. A truly horrible, but unfortunately not that uncommon, example is what happened to Molly. She has been incredibly brave in writing her story here:

Often the fact that people have perpetrated or enabled this kind of abuse is well known. Years ago a friend was stalked by another person on the left. He eventually assaulted her partner and they had to get a restraining order. A well known socialist who was in a position of power, knowing full well what had happened, supported the stalker in court and wrote him a reference. He did nothing to even discourage this person's behavior, which continued after the restraining order was obtained. Many people know that this happened, but they have never pulled up this well respected lefty for his behavior.

Over recent years I've noticed a marked decline in the number of women participating in radical left groups compared to men. This is usually attributed to broader social pressures, such as having less time, being discouraged from participating in political issues etc. But in at least 2 groups I've been involved in I've seen instances where women members have been systematically targeted (sometimes even by other women) for bullying and harassment, compelling them to leave one after another. Even without such systematic attacks, the pressure of having to deal with continual sexism or abuse eventually wears many women down. It is very noticeable that the organisations that take sexism, especially individual sexism, seriously are the ones that still have higher percentages of female members.

This is not a problem that is isolated to certain parts of the left. The incidents I have mentioned are just *some* examples of abuse that I've witnessed. While I haven't mentioned names of individuals or organisations, I do want to make it clear that they happened in different groups across the radical left spectrum.

I believe that if these were racist attacks the response from people on the left would be very different. I'm not saying the left get's it right on racism issues. I still encounter people talking about "reverse racism" or getting angry at being called out for their privileged behavior, and it's very frustrating that so few people turn up for events like deaths in custody rallies. But I just can't see a situation where a respected member of the left would go to court to defend someone who'd attacked another because of their race. And I can't see most groups on the left seeing a racist attack by one of their members as a personal issue.

I think the core of the problem is that we still haven't come to terms with the messy reality that the personal is political. It's much easier to deal with issues that are further away. Where the left is involved in feminist issues it focuses on things like pay equality, abortion rights, etc. When it deals with the issue of violence against women it does so in an abstract way, for example going to a Reclaim the Night march, or campaigning for better resources for victims of domestic violence.

But we know that most women will be abused, assaulted, harassed or sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. The majority of this violence happens from people who are close to us. And for a lot of us that means our comrades.

Individual violence against women needs to be taken seriously. We should be trying to create an environment that is safe for women so that they can fully engage in activism. I know that there are no easy solutions, but if we really value the contribution of women as much as men, then the left needs to take it's head out of the sand. We need to take misogynist violence as seriously as we take racist violence. It needs to be treated as a hate crime.

This means not only education and consciously creating an environment where women are respected, but also putting into place structures that support that. We need policies to tackle harassment and violence in all our organisations.  They need to be carefully thought through and designed to protect the victim. It's not enough to leave dealing with really tough situations up to individual discretion. This isn't some kind of fluffy liberal solution. This is a necessary form of defense against the routine violence that is used to uphold male privileged.

It also means being prepared to make tough decisions. If a woman feels uncomfortable being around a male who has abused her, we need to put her safety above his right to be involved in activism. If we have to remove a male comrade from an organisation in order to stop them abusing someone, then we need to be prepared to do this. Otherwise we are effectively deciding that males are worth more than females, that abusers are worth more than their victims.

But most of all we need to speak up. The thing that most enables abuse to happen is silence. Sexism need to be called out. Individuals who engage in or enable abuse must be held accountable. Anything that silences victims needs to be challenged.

It is the personal responsibility of anyone who claims to believe in social justice not to let abuse take place right under their own noses. We need to take a real stand against misogynist violence and abuse in our own organisations and communities. We need to start practicing what we preach.


  1. Well written, gutsy contribution

  2. Excellently written.

  3. Excellent article, but I do take issue with this

    "I believe that if these were racist attacks the response from people on the left would be very different."

    See what you are describing is the structural violence that goes on behind the scenes, hidden from view, which shoves women out. Where it is public it tends to be "ironic" - rape jokes being told "ironically"; sexist remarks being made "ironically", etc.

    The same goes on with racism. Holding meetings in pubs, or not providing halal food/vegan food, little comments here and there, assumptions that are made about women who turn up in hijabs.

    Thats all hidden too, and although its not the same thing, it has the effect of shoving Black people out of the movement. Violence is not always manifested physically.

    In both cases, people dont deal with it because they are complicit in it, and they are embarrassed at their complicity.

    Much better that the incident didnt happen than that you yourself might be found at fault for not doing more to stop it, therefore people pretend that it didnt happen, they sweep it under the rug, because they dont want to examine their own behaviour, their own misogyny, their own racism.

  4. Yeah I totally agree. I think in a lot of ways the left is even more exclusive against POC than it is of women. I think especially Indigenous people and Muslims have a very hard time.

    I think the left makes a big deal about certain types of racism. Like a lot of people are really into going to anti-fascist events. Which is I guess the type of thing I was thinking of when it comes to violence. It does shock me that someone can be hospitalised essentially because of their gender and people will consider that a personal issue.

    But you are right. It's different in that it happens behind closed doors and it's a lot easier to ignore it. And just like with the feminist stuff the left campaigns on, the anti-racist campaigns are very externalised. It's a lot easier to hate nazis than it is to confront more systemic racism

    I really wish the left would take all these things more seriously, and be far more willing to examine it's own privalidge etc.

  5. This is an excellent post on perpetrators being accepted within communities:

    "Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? "Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there's a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it's okay because we all just remember to jump over it."

    Some people are like that missing stair."

  6. I don't understand why anyone is even vaguely surprised by this. Left wing men are just as misogynist as right wing men, in fact they are worse, because they genuinely believe they are egalitarian but they have ALWAYS been prepared to throw women under the bus because they simply haven't accepted the fact that we are human, just like them - just like right-wing men. Being an activist in left wing groups which aren't consciously and overtly feminist, is just another way of working for the man.

  7. This could easily have been written from here. So many similar situations occur and there is no recourse. Mainly because people dont speak out because when they do there seems to be some kind of social reboot where its all a matter of how much power one wields and how many will listen to a vulnerable person. And theres the tragedy, democratic movements gain strength from criticism, from brave voices, this blog is one. Still I fear theres some of my peers, in various walks of life (including activism), that would simply plead ignorance and even belittle someone who they harassed. (I know Im a dullard please humour me) How do we clearly address men like these? How do we tackle their misogyny? I consider a refusal to work with them goes without saying. What more?

  8. I think the main things are to be willing to call out those men and to support victims. The vast majority of people are not willing to do this at all. It's too personally confronting. It won't necessarily fix a situation, especially when very few people are willing to do it. But I can't tell you how much it means when you are isolated and someone does stand up for you in some way.

    I found this quote the other day which really sums up how the cycle works:

    "It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering. . . .

    In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does
    everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail."

  9. *****CORRECTION*****
    I have spoken to the person who wrote the article about RtN. It turns out she didn't know about people accusing my friend of making a false rape allegation. After finding out more of what has been going on she has stopped supporting the harasser and is willing to discuss things with us.

  10. Ben, thanks for posting this, and Em thank you for having the courage to write and share this.

    This treatment of women reflects the deeply misogynistic and misanthropic character of many left groups, where the focus is not on combating oppression but building the organisation. Of course this logic only works by accepting the idea that some people are more important, more vital to be in the organisation than others so they have to be protected while others are driven out.

    At one level it isn't surprising that predators are able to generate support - that is what they are experts at getting others to excuse them and justify their behaviour - but the left if it is to be genuine and successful in struggling for a better world has to be clear that it is opposed to oppressive behaviour and that no matter how "brilliant", "hardworking" or "dedicated" someone is, it doesn't justify or legitimise oppressive behaviour and that rapists and predators should not be welcome in the movement.

    I'll share your article around. I should be posting some thoughts soon this weekend developing and expanding around the comments I wrote on Fox's open letter and hopefully will have a rough translation done of a statement by the trade union Solidaires in France about combating violence against women in the workplace.

    1. Thanks Chris - just saw this now, looking forward to following the discussion as it progresses! You make thought provoking comments. good one.

  11. I'll be sharing this, the sad thing is that lately I've been hearing more and more shit like this, maybe it's a good thing, maybe I'm hearing more sad/depressing things because people are talking about it more. I osted the rest of this comment on another blog (Amanda Palmer's, she was talking about the horrific case of Amanda Todd) but this blog has made me want to say it again.

    What I do know is that it is my, and everybody else's responsibility to stand up and say "THIS IS NOT OK" whenever and wherever we see someone posting, saying or doing things that are hateful, bullying, sexist, racist or whatever else it is they can think of to say or do that will hurt and upset people. And the thing is, while it is wonderful that we have people like AFP, who has created such a beautiful corner of the internet where people are unafraid to stand up and say "This happened to me" and other people are unafraid to stand up and say "It's not your fault, it's ok to be who you are, have some love". What we also need to do is stand up ALL over the internet and in the real world and say "THIS IS NOT OK" to the trolls, to the haters, to the idiots, to the cruel, to the unthinking and to those who say "It's not my problem". One of the biggest problems we face is apathy. If all the people who thought "I can't do anything about it" and "If I say something they'll attack me too" actually stood up and said something, I think they'd have a much louder voice than they thought. So next time you see someone hating on facebook, call them on it, next time you see a kid in the playground being shoved about, grab a friend and go stop it together, next time you hear a friend joke about rape, berate them, next time, SAY SOMETHING. And love, always, always love. xx

  12. Early last year, two members (a man and a woman)of a branch of a revolutionary union based in Melbourne made an application to join the Melbourne Anarchist Club. The man's application was rejected because he was known to have sexually harrassed women in the past and had shown no inclination to change despite being confronted on more than one occasion. The woman who applied withdrew her application out a sense of solidarity and loyalty to her comrade! Why is it that women who would normally be expected to have a feminist sensibility support a man who sexually harasses women? Because of the logic of party loyalty?

  13. I recommend the branch consider implementing a positivist, constent-based aproach like that developed at Antioch College (US) in the 1990s.

  14. Well Lugius, that would be pretty shit if it was what happened. Except that I didn't know about the sexual harassment at the time I withdrew the application. The reason I withdrew the application was nothing to do with "party loyalty" but because I thought the man was a friend, and because the whole situation made me really uncomfortable. I only found out about the harassment afterwards, and only because the man forwarded me the emails you and the other person who objected to his application wrote. Those emails also listed a lot of different issues which had nothing to do with sexual harassment (I don't think yours mentioned the harassment at all). At the time the man convinced me that his out of control behavior 5 years ago was due to a mental illness which had only since been diagnosed. He also claimed that he had put in a lot of effort to change and make up for his behavior. In hindsight it was pretty damn stupid of me to believe him.

    I also want to say that when a formal complaint was made to the union about the harassment, I did everything I could to make sure the victim could feel safe and comfortable at future events. Not siding with the harasser on this issue and on another case of harassment were the main things which set off his harassment of me which has gone on for the last 5 months.

  15. i'm wondering if someone can give me an example of when something *is* a personal situation rather than a situation of abuse.


Type your comment here and choose an ID to "Comment as" - choose "name/URL" or "Anonymous" if you don't want to sign in.