The Left Needs To Confront Its Own Sexual Assault Problem

Our movements will never win as long as many of us are unsafe.

Alex Press

Protesters walk during the Women's March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein has had ripple effects far beyond Hollywood. High-profile figures in the music industry, media and the labor movement have had sexual harassment or assault allegations against them go public, and we can only imagine how many more are being made outside the media spotlight.

A woman speaking up about sexual violence on the Left does so because of her commitment to our work, not in spite of it.

On the Left, we aspire to hold ourselves to higher standards than most communities when it comes to sexual violence, and rightly so. Driven by a desire to build a world free of the oppression and exploitation that drives sexual violence, leftists should take the subject very seriously, particularly when it happens in our movements. On the surface, most leftists agree.

But the Left has never been immune to sexism and sexual violence from its leaders—from 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Stokely Carmicheal said the only position for women in the Black Power movement was “prone,” to 2013, when members left the U.K.’s Socialist Workers Party after it refused to adequately investigate rape allegations against a leading member, to today, when ongoing revelations about alleged sexual misconduct by former SEIU vice president Scott Courtney, a key architect of the union’s Fight for $15 campaign, have resulted in Courtney’s resignation along with the termination of at least one other union staff member. In each of these cases, toleration of this behavior weakened the organization.

I am not alone in having experienced the immense pressure brought to bear on anyone speaking out about sexual violence in an organizing space. At worst, you become subject to reminders of the damage you can do to the movement by accusing a prominent man (it’s not always a man, but it usually is) of sexual violence. “The Right will use this information against us,” you might be reminded, or, “We can’t win without him”—the implication being that if you insist on bringing up a leader’s misconduct, “we” can’t win with you.

Whether you yourself were abused or you are speaking up on someone else’s behalf, you open yourself up to criticisms that you are distracting from the real work of the movement. Rather than speaking about your intended focus—be it labor organizing, coalition building, communications strategies or direct action planning—you are forced into the position of feeling hysterical, becoming a caricature: the woman who is decrying sexism or misogyny in the movement. Almost instantly, you feel your comrades change how they see you: Once an organizer first and foremost, you’re now a woman before all else. It’s jarring. Moments prior you were a respected leader, and suddenly you are suspect.

But when women (it’s not always women, but it usually is) raise the issue of sexual violence on the Left, we do so out of our commitment to building the strongest and most sustainable possible movement. An insistence on taking sexual violence seriously is not a distraction—it is central.

I cannot tell you how many campaigns I have seen endangered by the revelation that a man who voluntarily took on a leadership position had a history of sexual violence or misconduct: a local anti-police brutality movement quietly hoping our leader’s unconscionable history with women never goes public, because it’d be a gift to the Right; a campaign against union-busting on campus led by a man facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, persistently failing to have any women show up in meeting after meeting, suffering from a deficit of volunteer labor and ultimately failing to win. This is why we need clear, immediate action against sexual misconduct: It’s how we retain critical and independent leaders, especially women and queer people. To insist upon zero tolerance for abusers ensures our movements are built and led by people who can be trusted.

We cannot afford to hand-wave away concerns about sexual violence or sexism on the Left. These afflictions are no worse in our movements than on any other part of the political spectrum, but to pretend we are immune to the influences of a deeply sexist and violent world would be delusional. It’s true that now, in a moment when the Left has noticeable momentum, there are more hostile forces than ever seeking to weaponize our imperfections in hopes of tarring our political projects as illegitimate. But when these criticisms come from within our communities, we should respond to them with the seriousness they deserve.

A woman speaking up about sexual violence on the Left does so because of her commitment to our work, not in spite of it. She does so because it’s the only way to stamp out behaviors that could do us unimaginable damage in the short and long term. This conversation is not a distraction from our project, and it is not a “women’s issue”; fighting sexual violence within our movements is central to building a Left that can win. 

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Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. You can follow her on Twitter @alexnpress.
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