Addressing sexual violence in the IWW

An article by Madaline Dreyfus, replying to some of the recent discussion on instances of sexual violence within the IWW. Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence.

Recently, within our union, the issue of sexual assault and rape of women members has been proposed to be a primary cause of the women leaving the IWW. As a member of the Edmonton General Membership Branch (GMB) for nearly seven years and a survivor of sexual assault, I wanted to respond to what I perceive to be a disturbing discourse surrounding the issue of sexual violence against women.

I am doubtful that the failure to address sexual and gender-based violence is the leading or even one of the leading causes of women leaving the organization or campaigns. While I do think there are factors which contribute to women leaving that are rooted in androcentric and patriarchal practice, I would absolutely not call them violent in the vast majority of cases. Not all patriarchal acts are acts of sexual violence, and by giving disproportionate attention to assault, we render many of the everyday oppressions of female members invisible, and overlook other contributors to gender imbalances in our union.

In conversations with other sister workers, experiences which I know to have directly contributed to women leaving or reducing their involvement include: being asked out by much older men, having men enter their personal space in a way that made them feel vulnerable or unsafe, and derogatory comments made about their interests/capacity/value in the branch. Additionally, although much harder to track, there are a large number of women who leave the union due to messy personal (not political–and I do differentiate) relationships with other members. I attribute much of this messiness to immaturity, unkindness and the inherent complexity of sexual and romantic relationships. I think we need to intervene when conflict begins to affect the safety or continued involvement of members, and in these cases I think we need to act proactively as often as possible.

There is always a need to be mindful of the enormous difference between situations where we can exert personal or organizational influence and easily interrupt patriarchal behavior and cases of sexual assault. While many of us are rightfully suspicious of state structures, until we have the capacity to deal with all aspects of sexual assault appropriately, I believe the only responsible course of action in the case of a report of sexual assault is to encourage and help survivors to contact sexual assault support services in their area, such as helplines, hospitals, police, sexual assault centers or mental health care. We simply do not have the organizational resources or expertise at this point to assist survivors in the ways that are necessary to prevent awful outcomes, such as re-victimization, unwanted publicity, exposing them to further sexual or domestic violence from the same offender, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicide. Being a member of the IWW is important, but not nearly important as being healthy and safe.

Imagine if a woman reported a rape and instead of taking her (with consent) to the hospital or police station for a rape kit, we “dealt” with it ourselves first and physical evidence of the crime was lost? Or she wasn’t able to obtain an abortion and psychological counseling from a qualified health provider in a timely way? Or her attacker was a person within our community, and she was encouraged to find shelter within that community instead of at a shelter? Those are horrifying possibilities. Whenever I hear suggestions of “direct action” around issues of sexual assault, it becomes clear that the consequences of this course of action have not been fully considered— and that is a far greater danger to women in our organization than anything we are doing now. It is very important that we are honest with members about our limited capacity to address sexual assault within our organization in order to ensure that survivors make informed decisions about whether to access other forms of support and do not feel as though they are betraying the union or their community’s principles in doing so.

Sexual assault is not an issue that can be addressed by direct action for one clear reason: there is no “winnable demand,” which is the key characteristic of any direct action we engage in. The only things that we could win back for a person who has been sexually victimized—their self-worth, happiness, sense of safety, or physical health for instance—are not things that we can ever “win” for someone else. We cannot erase what has happened and therefore we can only take revenge, which puts neither the survivor nor us in a position of power. A worker runs the risk of feeling terribly betrayed if these unachievable aims are the goals of our organizing, because no matter what we win, it will never be a victory.

Additionally, it’s important to imagine the possible danger if we “lose.” Any of us who have been active organizers in the IWW know that any campaign loss can be extremely difficult emotionally, even under the very best circumstances. Can anyone take responsibility for pinning a worker’s hope for recovery from sexual assault on an organizing drive? Can we inoculate against what might happen if we lose, and the perpetrator has accomplished a second victimization of the worker? Any conscientious organizer knows that we must never raise the stakes so high.

This is not to say that a worker who has been sexually assaulted, at work or otherwise, should not be involved in an organizing campaign, if they feel able to be. It means only that the sexual assault should never be considered an organizing issue within the campaign. A worker might feel deeply empowered by successful direct action around other issues, meaningful connections with others, and solidarity, all of which may help that worker to survive an assault. We should ensure the worker guides all of their interactions with the perpetrator in order to protect their physical and emotional safety.

If individuals within the IWW know that it is our policy not to turn over cases of sexual assault to legal authorities or outside organizations, we are creating spaces where perpetrators are protected from the consequences of these acts. Furthermore, we are putting at risk the safety of both assault survivors and other members who may become involved in a conflict with the offender. Restorative justice can be an empowering process for survivors and their political communities, providing a way to move forward from destructive sexual violence. It is important that engagement in these processes be guided by individuals who are knowledgeable, experienced, and supported by others with expertise, such as social workers, etc.

I have participated in several IWW meetings where sexual assault and policies surrounding this issue were discussed for extended periods of time. This particular practice is for me, and can be for others, enormously triggering of difficult memories, thoughts and emotions. While survivors are often very invested in the processes we use to address sexual violence within our branch, making these subjects a regular topic of public discussion is a practice that I strongly discourage. Given that nearly a quarter of all women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, we need to be cognisant of the fact that the practice of bringing these topics up in public meetings may in fact be harmful to the very group of individuals meant to be empowered by it.

I don’t think we can underestimate the complex processes that contribute to sexual violence, in our union or in society at large. The statistical truth is that strategies which rely heavily on punitive rather than preventative strategies are unlikely to be as successful as desired, in part because punitive strategies ensure that a sexual assault must occur before we can take action. For instance, statistics indicate that the vast majority of sexual assaults occur when the perpetrator is impaired by drug or alcohol consumption.

A simple practice which has the potential to reduce the risk of sexual violence, although far less glamorous than violent retaliation, is for IWW branches to be highly aware of drug and alcohol use amongst members attending union events and socials. Having a designated pair (preferably of different genders) of sober individuals at each event allows the event organizers to keep a watchful eye on interactions that seem like they could become coercive or violent, and provides capable point-people who could handle the report of an assault reasonably and promptly. Additionally, all branch officers should be provided with a brief guide for what to do if an assault is reported to them, including numbers of hotlines, local hospitals, and sexual assault centers in the area.

Certainly, it seems clear that under no circumstances should men ever be involved in interpreting, determining priorities around, or writing legislation for women’s issues. No matter how wellmeaning, these acts always serve to silence women. While we may value male allies in our fight, the fight is our own. We do not need male “enforcers” to protect women with macho violence, nor do we need male “protectors” to publicize and act as experts on our oppressions. It is important that while men and other non-female IWW members should remain engaged in these discussions, and recognize that as union members they will have a vote on any legislative changes, women should always remain the sole representatives of their own concerns.

The first priority in all cases of sexual assault should be the physical and mental health of the survivor, second the protection of our members, followed finally by the attending to the needs of the organization. Rather than focusing on the actions of the perpetrator, we must always address physical harm to the survivor, much of which may not be immediately apparent; internal injuries, shock, sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy, for instance.

It is AN INDIVIDUAL SURVIVOR’S RIGHT to decide how she would like others to respond to her assault, including who is made aware of it, what treatment she consents to, and the response of her organization. Policies that encourage any type of “automatic” action, such as the expulsion of members accused of sexual assault, are unhelpful and discourage reporting of sexual violence. Aside from potentially drawing attention to an issue that the survivor may wish to remain confidential, the experience of the assault belongs to the survivor, not the organization— and she should be empowered to make any decisions needed, with an understanding that her organization will provide options and support. Where a worker has had her right to consent violated, we must not repeat the same crime in addressing her assault.

Discussions about the assault should be directed by the survivor, and those confided in with these situations should be made aware of the need for confidentiality. Sexual assault is a form of disempowerment that cannot simply be reversed through collective action. We cannot undo the violence which has been done to survivors, however we can endeavour to provide as safe an environment as possible, as well promote organizational practices that allow for the long and difficult path to recovery.