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: http://rapeisreal.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/my-story-2/
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.