Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Sexism and the left: Fight the (invisible) power

Recent controversies over allegations of sexual abuse and violence raise urgent questions about the dynamics of power and authority in our own organisations, argues Zoe Stavri

April 26, 2013
6 min read

woman with raised hand
The past few months have seen a spate of revelations about poor handling of sexual abuse, assault and harassment within organisations across the political spectrum, so that frequently it is difficult to keep track of who allegedly has been covering up what.

The closer to home it is, the more it hurts. When it’s the Lib Dems, it feels like something happening far away. When it’s the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – comrades with whom I have organised – it feels far more of a pressing danger. I am hardly surprised that people are leaving the party in droves over the very messy and public detailing of how it handled allegations of rape against a leading member. Despite a large number of members expressing outrage over the way the matter had been handled, delegates at a special conference in March voted overwhelmingly in support of the central committee. Had I ever been a member, I’d have left a thousand times over.

The structure of hierarchical institutions – of all political persuasions – facilitates the failure to deal with sexual violence. The explicit power structures of such organisations have consequences. Those higher up the pecking order are more integral to the organisation, more important. They are the ones deemed more worthy of protection. So, if a person in a high-up position is accused of sexual violence, it is they, not the survivor, who is more likely to be rallied around. Of course it will usually be men occupying these positions of power.

Untouchable

These men develop a sense of being untouchable because, in a sense, they are. From celebrities such as Jimmy Savile to key members of political parties to the Catholic Church, it has become abundantly clear that within the institutions sexual violence is swept under the carpet because it is seen as more important to keep such important figures onside. Better to maintain the talent, the funder, the brains, they believe. It becomes an act of treachery to address specific instances of sexual violence as crucial figures within organisations become emblematic of those organisations both to those on the inside and those outside. Those who come forward and speak of their experience of sexual violence are all too often demonised, or ignored at best.

This problem is amplified by the role of the police, if the police are involved. A corrupt institution, dominated by white men and granted the position of gatekeeper to justice by the state, the police get to choose whether to investigate instances of sexual violence. All too often they choose not to, deciding that there is not enough proof. And the police have more than enough skeletons in their own closet: between 2008 and 2012, there were 56 reported cases of sexual violence involving police officers. Given the phenomenal levels of under-reporting of sexual violence generally, the real figure is likely far higher. It is hardly surprising that taking the state route to justice for rape is a journey many survivors are unwilling to take.

Institutional hierarchy, though, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for sexual violence – or the failure to address it. Rather, it exacerbates a problem that is pervasive throughout all of society. It makes it easier for powerful men to exploit the implicit discrepancies in power, which are present and often ignored. It is no coincidence that defenders of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, talk of his anti-government work, at best ignoring a discussion of sexual violence. It is easier to conceptualise the explicit power structure of an unfair state than it is to think about how men have power over women and may abuse it. Yet the invisible power structures of a kyriarchical system – a structure of overlapping oppressions – are replicated within anti-capitalist groups, anti-war groups, anarchist circles and all those of us who are, nominally at least, fighting the power.

Subject of ridicule

Issues of gender, race, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism and so forth are treated as intellectual exercises rather than a daily reality. The notion of privilege is scoffed at, the notion of addressing this treated as a subject of ridicule. There is a pervasive pattern of thought that these are things that might need fixing but can be fixed after the revolution. Whether there is a formal leader or not, a climate is created wherein it is very difficult for survivors to speak out about sexual violence they have experienced, and nearly impossible for communities to deal with the problem.

We do not need the machinations of hierarchical organisations to address sexual violence in our own communities. Far from it, as we have seen so many times how these formal structures and codified processes and chains of command can exacerbate and facilitate the problem. Neither do we need the police to solve this problem for us: they cannot, they will not, and this will never change. We do not need heroes or champions, figures seen as integral to how we organise: all too often, when these heroes are accused of sexual violence, it is the sexual violence that is denied and ignored in order to maintain the status of the hero.

What we need is something new entirely. We need to let go of these hierarchies into which we were socialised. We need to address our own prejudices and privileges, accept that sexism remains a problem on the left and from this position begin to deal with it. We need to organise within our communities and networks against sexual violence, and this process should be led by survivors. Survivors are, after all, those best placed to have an analysis about what needs to be done, and we must listen to these voices and create a safe space for survivors to speak out.

Yet it is ultimately worthwhile. What point is there to a revolution when many remain unsafe? Nothing changes. What is the point of undoing visible hierarchies when the invisible ones remain in place? Nothing changes. This is a pressing problem, and one for which a solution is long overdue.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum