Addressing sexual violence in the IWW

Women Workers in the IWW poster

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.


Mar 28 2014 12:38

It looks like a comment was taken down, so I'm not quit sure what was said... But yeah, I said that libcom should not publish rape apologism in response to "the politics of denunciation" by Kristian Williams, which has now been temporarily taken down pending moderators discussion. I most definitely was NOT referring to this article or the one by Rebecca.

EDIT: I actually linked to the article I was referring to. So there shouldn't even be a question about this.

Juan Conatz
Mar 28 2014 19:53

Ah, yes, you're right. I mixed up 'victim blaming' for 'rape apoligism'. I edited my post to reflect what was actually said.

Mar 29 2014 00:03

Yeah, edit out your lies.

Sooner or later people will realise that the only thing you really care about is protecting the reputation of you party.

Mar 29 2014 12:58

OK, deleted.

I do take this thread very seriously, I think it brings up a lot of flaws in current IWW practice and I hope that a lot of FWs will become less self-congratulatory about our organization, when it's clear that we have a lot of problems (including a very weak ability to respond to sexual assault). However I think this weakness comes from other issues, a lack of seriousness on the part of many members, a complete divorce between local branches and the wider union that is half-structural and half-cultural, etc.

That being said EmC's accusation that Juan "only cares about protecting the reputation of the party" is utter nonsense, completely out of proportion with anything he's said, and deserves to be called such.

Mar 30 2014 00:00

I wrote a long reply last night or the night before but apparently my comment got eaten by the internet. I'm going to get back to this later when I have more time. I wanted to say for now that I appreicate EmC apologizng for some of the comments. I think that dials thigns down a bit and I think it takes character to apologize like that publicly. Thanks for doing that. I also want to say, I totally get how this is heated intense stuff and that makes it hard to discuss and hard to agree to disagree. (I also get how the downvote thing would be really upsetting, understandably so, in a thread like this, that makes me think differently about the up/down vote thing, a feature I've always thought before was just a good thing.) What would people here think about rebooting this thread (not deleting but starting a new thread for discussion, keeping this one though so people can read it) and/or maybe splitting it? I think there are at least two things going on here, one is about experiences and the other is about policy and practice in the IWW. I get that those are related and the second should be informed by the first, but they strike me as different.

Also, for what it's worth, I don't at all object to survivors publicizing assaults that happened in the IWW or at IWW events or in any other way connected to the IWW, and shortcomings of the way it was handled both officially and unofficially, if that's the survivor's decision. As an IWW member, I find that stuff embarrassing, but it's *the fact that it's happened* that's embarrasing, not the reporting of it. (There's got to be a better word but I can't think of one, I don't mean 'embarrassign' to sound trivializing, I apologize if it sounds that way.) As Bounce said, giving attention to sexual assault is part of taking it seriously. There have been instances though of people publicizing assaults without the consent of the survivors involved (not in this situation in Australia, but in the US), which I think is unacceptable and irresponsible. In my opinion that's one of the things that should be discussed in terms of how to handle assaults.

Mar 30 2014 03:22

After a little longer to think about it, I want to make it very clear that I do take this thread and the issues it raised seriously. I hadn't commented until earlier today because I wasn't sure if I had anything to contribute per se. I also want to apologize for any kind of sarcasm I expressed in my earlier post two spots up and I want to thank Fingers Malone for calling me out on it.

I think almost none of the members in the US/Canada have heard anything about what is or has happened in Australia, which is why we haven't done anything. I know it's complete news to me. I don't think that any of the responsible officers have dropped the ball, I think our structure is broken and it shows when anything substantial comes up, whether that is an internal crisis like this or a wider opportunity to intervene in society (a limit which we ran into in Madison and which we've avoided for the past three years by not doing any social intervention). There is a complete mind/body split, a disconnect between our everyday union activity like organizing, Branch events, etc, and the activity of the general union as performed by the various officers. It is an organizational schizophrenia that seems to occur no matter which officers we elect and so the cause must be something independent of the individual officers.

If I understand right, there are allegations that in Australia a survivor has been intimidated by multiple members who are supporting the assault perpetrator - is that the gist of it? As I've said I've heard next to nothing but that seems serious, I want to be very careful about what we're talking about before jumping to conclusions.

Mar 30 2014 04:29

Emc wrote:

EDIT: I actually linked to the article I was referring to. So there shouldn't even be a question about this.

My bad. I missed the comment before the one I originally quoted with the link to the now unpublished Williams article. I was certain it wasn't in reference to the winters article(as in it wasn't accusing the winters article of being apologism!), but I forgot the name of the one which was taken down, which is why I framed it as a question. Sorry, that is confusing now that I think of it.

Also, I'd like to express my support for most of what you've written here Emc.

Mar 30 2014 05:25

This blog post discussed what happened in the Australian IWW. It was/is really complicated and "messy" (as these things often are, which then gets used to dismiss them) which makes it hard to explain all of what happened, briefly.

Mar 30 2014 05:29
Mar 30 2014 05:34

These are articles I've written talking about the situation:

And honestly, they don't even cover all the fuckedupness that went on.

This is the discussion that happened on Libcom when the harasser finally got booted from AM. He was supported by IWW members including in the US during this:

Here is an article someone else recently wrote referring to IWW members in Australia:

This is an article that was written about the rapist by someone else on the left, it's not about the rape but is an example of his previous aggressive behavior. The person who wrote it is a friend of a friend and I know that they were genuinely afraid that he would physically attack him.

Here the Australian ASF secretary talks about how he was attacked and given a punctured lung by an IWW member. This was basically part of a campaign of intimidation against an ex partner:

Also re the way this thread has happened... With a couple of exceptions, I don't feel like there is enough solidarity or mutual respect here to have a real discussion. Telling someone what happened to them is irrelevant because it was in a different country, branch, whatever is a kind of aggression. So was on the other "politics of denunciation" article where I feel like I was pleading for people to view things from the POV of the victim and just being met with "I think the article still stands" type comments. I feel ganged up on by a bunch of people who are mostly silent and giving each other silent pats on the back while they silently down vote us. I don't think it really matters what I say or do. I don't think the IWW as an organisation gives a fuck about survivors. That has been my experience. It's been the experience of everyone I've ever talked to who has had this kind of thing happen.

Mar 30 2014 06:25

Also, I know personally at least 4 other women [aside from me and bounce] in Australia who've left due to the sexism in the group, being harassed or assaulted by IWW members. This is out of a group of max 50 people, mostly men. A whole lot of other people left because of what happened. I also know of women who've left for these reasons in the US but I can't really speak for them.

Also I don't think that experiences can be separated from policy and practice discussion. Things can look good in theory but completely fail in practice.

Also the process in the IWW was very passive aggressive. Like not bothering to respond to Bounce's email saying she was leaving the union due to being victim blamed. Things would happen like I'd be booted from an email list for no reason. I'd talk to the officer and their response would be "Oh the communications officer did that and he was democratically elected so we can't do anything to change that". And later on they'd be like "EmC got angry at me for following the democratic process" [obviously she's crazy]. This is another reason I really am pissed off with how this discussion has happened. It's basically more of the same shit.

And frankly, I apologised to Madaline because I think I said some things to her that were fucked up. It was not an admission that everything bad that happened in this thread is somehow my fault. Talking about calling me out for what I said about Juan (which I stand by unless he wants to apologise himself) in this context, as if I'm a fucking perpetrator is really gross. I'm sick of being treated like we're the ones who did the wrong thing. If your priority is dealing with sexual assault in the IWW then show it. Don't make a pre-condition for that our being put in our place cause you don't like how we brought it up.

Apr 1 2014 23:45

EmC, thank you for your apology. It's big of you. These are such difficult conversations to have and I  know firsthand that they can bring up a lot of emotions. I commend  you, and Bounce, and any survivors for the courage that it takes to share your experience and I am truly sorry that people have reacted to your writing about your experience  in such a negative way. I read a lot of what you posted links to, and I actually think we agree in many ways about an approach to sexual violence (with a couple of notable points of difference). While I cannot speak for everyone in the IWW, I can reeassure you that I, and many other Wobblies I know, care deeply about survivors of sexual violence.

I appreciate that some people may disagree with some of what was written in my article. Bounce brings up the point that giving sexual assault "more time" may help this issue be treated more seriously. In my experience, most of the conversations that I have witnessed regarding sexual violence have not been useful in making the much-needed changes to our practice . Significant amounts of time are allotted for discussing these issues in a general sense, but rarely do they provide the foundation for moving forward with meaningful action. I would like to suggest that the quality of these discussions matters more than how often the issues are raised - and that therefore more time is not equivalent to treating the issues more seriously.

Instead if being informed by reasonable and practical suggestions, the conversations I have witnessed are often hijacked by social dynamics, are highly abstract and dominated with jargon which makes them inaccessible, or extend endlessly with no clear mandate for action. Often, individuals use these conversations as an opportunity to grandstand with extremist positions (such as the use of group violence against perpetrators) and  gain admiration from other comrades, instead of working toward changes which can realistically be implemented. No one act or policy can address the problem of sexual violence, but I would hope that our organization does not write off  steps toward change simply because they do not resolve the issue completely. In this way, by remaining resolutely focused on our response to a completed sexual assault (which is an important topic in it's own right), we struggle to address the patriarchal dynamics which produce a climate that is dangerous to women. Acknowledging the resource and skill limitations of the organization, to ensure we can fill those gaps by working with other agencies, is not at all the same as making excuses for inaction. 

As for the comment regarding Juan protecting me being "BS," folks should know that he was indeed speaking up for me. As EmC and Bounce have tragically experienced, survivors' voices are not always heard. I know Juan personally and I was following the thread before I first responded. I emailed Juan to say that I was upset about what had been said and that I was unsure whether to respond because I didn't have a Libcom account, so he posted something attempting to clarify my stance on the issue. As he mentioned earlier in this thread, and in personal emails to me as well, Juan was shocked by what happened in Australia and feels that the ROC should potentially have been dechartered for their lack of response to the sexual assault(s) that occurred there. He also advocated for the expulsion of those members who were involved with the harassment and sexual violence, and of officers who were complicit.  I don't think he takes a minimizing stance on sexual violence, and as far as I have known him, he has always been extremely supportive of survivors speaking up and making sure that we prioritize the well-being of those survivors - myself included. Perhaps writing on this forum has not communicated this well, the Internet can complicate communication, but I know Juan to be a principled and thoughtful activist who has taken an active role in encouraging me to write about my assault.

Sorry for the slow reply, I am currently on holiday and have limited Internet access.

Apr 3 2014 00:51
my article. Bounce brings up the point that giving sexual assault "more time" may help this issue be treated more seriously. In my experience, most of the conversations that I have witnessed regarding sexual violence have not been useful in making the much-needed changes to our practice . Significant amounts of time are allotted for discussing these issues in a general sense, but rarely do they provide the foundation for moving forward with meaningful action. I would like to suggest that the quality of these discussions matters more than how often the issues are raised - and that therefore more time is not equivalent to treating the issues more seriously.

Thank you, Madaline, for this very excellent point; the quality of the discussion is of greater value than the quantity.

Instead if being informed by reasonable and practical suggestions, the conversations I have witnessed are often hijacked by social dynamics, are highly abstract and dominated with jargon which makes them inaccessible, or extend endlessly with no clear mandate for action. Often, individuals use these conversations as an opportunity to grandstand with extremist positions (such as the use of group violence against perpetrators) and gain admiration from other comrades, instead of working toward changes which can realistically be implemented. No one act or policy can address the problem of sexual violence

Being hijacked by social dynamics is a good part of the problem here, in my view. There is no doubt that misogyny was a contributing factor to the appalling treatment of Bounce and EmC, but it doesn't fully explain the fact that there were women in the IWW supporting the perpetrators. It appears that friendship loyalties proved to be stronger than an adherence to principle.

It is natural for friends to want to stick up for each other, but it clearly is a problem insofar as the administration of justice is concerned, starting with the unqualified support for survivors. It appears that the interests of friendship circles compromised the proper administrative response; instead of a timely response to a complaint that should be the first step towards supporting a survivor.

To be fair, it should be acknowledged that when the Secretary of ASF Melbourne wrote to the Secretary of the Melbourne IWW with regard to the safety of our comrade, Bec, the response was prompt and respectful of the concerns expressed. However, when the then Secretary of the ASF Brisbane wrote to the ROC to complain about an assault by an IWW member, there was no response. This suggests that the IWW in Australia lacks a consistent process.

I think it would be helpful that there be a basic procedure applied to the reception of complaints in the case of one member against another, and in the case of a complaint from 'outside'.

In my view, I think the principle of having an appeal heard by an independent body is a good one, as happened when the issue in the Melbourne IWW was adjudicated by the Portland IWW. It addresses the issue of a just outcome.

Inevitably, members will make friendships, but meetings and other administrative functions should be conducted in a formal manner based on agreed processes regardless of personal relationships (sometimes criticised as 'too bureaucratic').

It would be a mistake to think that these important issues are to be confined to the IWW, these issues need to be given due consideration and, as Madaline has pointed out, be the subject of quality discussion.

Thanks to the enormous courage of bounce and EmC, we can (hopefully) engage in a discussion that would lead to a 'clear mandate for action'.

Aug 15 2014 07:15

I am a IWW, I am a sexual violence survivor, and have had partners that have been sexually assaulted.

The IWW - and every other group - really needs to address this issue of a strong reporting process.

As is, the lack of a strong reporting process has led to victim blaming - and also a lot of friendly fire.

Without a structure, social media condemnation of IWWs 100% opposed to sexual violence was rife.

I can't stress the need for a strong sexual violence and general reporting processes enough - Do it.