Rape and Misogyny: How the Left Can Do Better
In light of the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), our guest author Sarah discusses the problem of allegations of sexual offences and misogyny in political organisations. She argues it is necessary to prioritise the victim’s personal rights and wishes.
The unfolding crisis in the SWP has been sparked by the handling of a serious complaint concerning a former Central Committee member. It is clear that the complaint was appallingly handled and serious criticisms have been made from within the party about the treatment of the woman involved, including questioning her previous sexual relationships. The SWP, its leadership and members, must address these criticisms. But the case, and reactions to it from outside the SWP, raises a broader concern about what left organisations should do when allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment are brought forward.
Sectarian divisions can blind us to problems that affect groups and organisations more broadly. Those gloating over the SWP’s failings, appear to ignore that other left organisations would equally have struggled to handle such allegations. The continued prevalence of sexism and misogyny within the left has been well documented. This relatively unchallenged sexism contributes to a situation where sexual offences can be ignored and even covered up; where the same rape myths we so deplore in wider society are used to demonise and blame those bringing allegations forward. The problem affects all our organisations to some extent and so change needs to take place across the whole movement. Criticising the SWP is not helpful if sectarian divisions allow us to ignore similar failings in our own and other organisations.
Two broad arguments are made here. Firstly, that political ideology and allegiance should not be put before individual rights to pursue justice or before the safety of women in political organisations. Secondly, that in seeking to counter rape culture and bring rapists to account we must avoid creating an environment unsupportive of victims and their wellbeing. The arguments apply equally to organisations on the left and on the right. Left organisations are not less prone to sexual offences than right wing organisations. However, since the left wishes to bring about more radical social change, particularly regarding women’s rights, it needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce or reinforce, within its organisational structures, society’s existing failures towards half the population. The left has to change how it deals with allegations about sexual violence, and more broadly with sexism and misogyny, if we are to tackle in any meaningful way broader social problems.
The internet has exploded with criticisms on what the SWP should have done instead of internally investigating these allegations. What the appropriate response should have been divides the critics, with disagreement centering on police involvement. Some arguments raised are deeply worrying, either because they seem to downplay the seriousness of sexual violence or because they imply that victims have a moral duty to protect potential future victims.
Two main arguments against police involvement have been presented. Firstly, some have argued that involving the police contradicts the revolutionary principles of the SWP and many similar organisations. Secondly, others have noted that “there’s a serious possibility that such a case could be used by the state to damage the whole organisation.” Concern that an organisation’s reputation would be damaged means that police involvement should be avoided. Both arguments suggest that it is better for revolutionary organisations to not involve the police, and handle allegations about sexual offences internally. Both imply that political ideology and the reputations of organisations are more important than the safety of women.
Other critics feel that the police should have been immediately involved. They argue that the SWP has a moral duty to report accusations of criminal activity to protect potential future victims from harm. While acknowledging the failings of the police, they nevertheless point out that they remain better placed as an institution to conduct the necessary investigations. In other words, the SWP and other left organisations have a moral duty to protect potential victims within their organisations and in wider society. In this case, police involvement, prosecution and conviction should be used as the best way of protecting future victims. Rape, rather than being conceived as primarily a personal matter, becomes a social problem that requires more short-term action (in relation to more long-term revolutionary goals) to protect other victims.
I want to argue against these two positions: one being maintaining the internal reporting, investigating and ‘prosecuting’ of alleged sexual offences made against members of revolutionary organisations; the other being their external reporting, investigating and prosecuting on the basis of the need to protect future victims, rather than focusing on the rights of the victim in the current case.
Firstly, there is evidence to show that attempts to solve this problem according to the first position result in cover ups and the demonization of complainants. Internal investigations cannot be free from bias, particularly when the accused is well known, and so are unlikely to result in justice for either the accused or the accuser.
Secondly, such arguments maintain a status quo where women must endure sexism, harassment and rape for the good of the revolutionary cause, as well as slut shaming and victimisation if they dare to speak out about it. Protecting an organisation’s reputation and/or following ideological principles is implicitly suggested as more important than tackling sexual violence within the movement. Such arguments overlook that maintaining this status quo allows sexual predators to target victims with virtual immunity. Just as in wider society, rapists can confidently assume a victim will either not be believed or will be encouraged to remain silent for the greater good.
Acknowledging that sexual offences should be reported, and that doing so is not counter revolutionary, is important. We must recognise that current criminal justice systems are flawed, but also acknowledge that they remain the only recourse we have that can adequately investigate and punish sexual predators in our movement.
However, the idea of a moral duty to protect potential future victims is also worrying. Firstly, these statements are not far removed from a “police or it didn’t happen” attitude. Emphasising a moral obligation to report rape to the police could easily imply that a ‘real’ rape victim, wishing to protect others, will always report their rape. Such statements imply that those victims who do not are somehow lesser victims, or liars, because a ‘real’ victim would come forward sooner.
Secondly, statements about moral duty have the potential to create an environment that pressurises victims to report. Such an environment does not support victims, because it obligates them to seek police involvement, not for themselves, but for others. In fact, few comments have mentioned justice for victims; the overriding emphasis has been on protecting future victims. These statements appear to overlook the fear many victims feel about reporting their rape to anyone, let alone to the police. Victims fear judgement, criticism and intrusive questioning. They also fear the possibility of witness intimidation that a police investigation brings. Stating that there is a moral duty to protect future victims overlooks their well-being and autonomy.
What we say about rape, about rape victims and about sexual violence in our movement matters. We are supposed to be fighting against oppressions and sexism, and we are supposed to be fighting for women’s liberation. But if we imply that our comrades who report rape to the police are counter-revolutionaries. If we slut-shame and demonise victims within our own organisations. Or if we begin to imply that there is a moral obligation to report rape and that those who do not are somehow failing potential victims. Then we aren’t fighting sexism or rape culture. We are upholding and reinforcing it.
What change is necessary? Firstly, the left must challenge the culture of suspicion about rape allegations in our society, our organisation and our movement. We must not repeat rape myths just because the accused is a comrade. Secondly, we must create a culture that is supportive of survivors, respectful of their wishes and concerns. We must not pressurize victims, nor criticize those who choose not to involve the police.
We also need to change how our organisations respond to allegations about sexual offences. Firstly, our organisations should ensure that their interactions with complainants are supportive. Secondly, the complainant should be advised about local victim support groups and crisis centres alongside internal support. Importantly, they should be assured that they will have the support of the organisation in any legal action. They must be assured that an organisation’s leaders will not tolerate victim blaming or slut shaming.
Further, our organisations must be prepared to involve the police when an allegation is brought to them. This is not counter revolutionary. It is an attempt to ensure that an allegation is investigated without the biases an internal investigation would be plagued with. It is an attempt to ensure that justice and adequate punishment is delivered; expulsion from an organisation, or a stern ticking off, is not an adequate response to sexual violence. However, police involvement must only be sort with the full consent of the complainant. Our organisations must not prevent victims from seeking police involvement, but nor should they pressurize a victim to involve the police against their wishes.
Creating a culture that supports victims, where rape apology and victim blaming is not tolerated, will reassure those who come forward that they will not be demonised. Hopefully, such a cultural shift will encourage the pursuit of legal action. Those who do not want police involvement should not be pressurized or criticized. This must remain a personal choice.
Where police involvement is not wanted, it may still be appropriate for internal action to be taken. Socialist Resistance has suggested several procedures that might help combat the current problems of internal investigations. More consideration is needed, and it is appropriate for our organisations to seek professional advice from groups such as Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis. We do not yet have revolutionary justice and it is arrogant to pretend that our organisations can adequately handle such serious allegations. A massive cultural shift within the radical left is needed before that can happen.
Smashing patriarchy is vital to the struggle to smash capitalism. We must name and shame those who demonise and intimidate women who bring allegations. They and their sexist attitudes must be made unwelcome in our movement. There must be no place on the left for sexual predators or rape apologists, whether they are local branch/group members or high profile figures.
Any change must be meaningful and it must be inclusive. It is not enough to challenge sexism in our movements; we must also end the sidelining of indigenous peoples, Black, queer, Trans, bi, gay, lesbian, disabled and any other activists from oppressed groups. It’s time for us to do better.