Silent no longer: confronting sexual violence in the left - Rebecca Winter

Image by Suzy X -

Excellent article arguing for and suggesting practical ways anarchist individuals, organisations and spaces can help support survivors of sexual violence. Trigger warning for mention of sexual violence.

In 2012, a member of the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP) came forward saying she had been raped and sexually harassed by the former National Secretary of the organisation, Martin Smith. The internal ‘investigation’ which followed demonstrated a number of common ways in which sexual violence is ignored and those who experience it are demonised. Some of the members of the Disputes Committee chosen to investigate the claim were close friends of Smith. The woman who had come forward was questioned about her sexual history and alcohol use. She was made to feel that members of the Disputes Committee thought she was “a slut who asked for it”. The Disputes Committee concluded that the accusation that Smith had raped and harassed her was “not proven.” Four members of the SWP who discussed their misgivings about the Committee’s decision on Facebook were expelled from the group. The woman who had accused Smith was not allowed to attend the SWP’s conference to contest the Disputes Committee’s decision. The SWP’s response to this case resulted in hundreds of members resigning. Meanwhile, Solidarity (an Australian affiliate of the SWP) labelled the SWP’s investigation of the rape claim “scrupulously fair”.

While there was a significant outcry amongst people in left-wing circles about the way members of the SWP responded to sexual violence within their group, there was little reflection on the fact that many other left-wing organisations respond in a similarly toxic way. The lack of internal democracy within the SWP certainly hindered the efforts of those seeking change within the organisation, but informal social processes influenced by misogynist ideas about sexual violence can be just as destructive to the lives of sexual violence survivors.

Gendered violence is a key way in which women’s oppression is maintained in our patriarchal society. In Australia, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men over the age of 15 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 years (1). Violence perpetrated by men is the leading cause of preventable death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 (2). Aboriginal women, poor women, women of differing abilities, and sex and gender diverse people are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence.

All too often, survivors of sexual violence are greeted with disbelief, anger, and defensiveness when they should be believed and supported. This happens in left-wing groups, our social movements, our friendship circles, our workplaces, and countless other places in society. While most left-wing groups and movements share a stated opposition to sexism, this does not make them immune to the misogynist assumptions which underlie victim blaming and which often come up when people are confronted by sexual violence committed by their friends or political comrades.

I was raped by someone who was involved in the Melbourne anarchist milieu in 2010. It was a horrible, frightening experience, made worse by the fact that it was someone who I had trusted as a friend and a political comrade. I was lucky, though. The friends, family members and people in the anarchist milieu I told about my experience believed me and the person who assaulted me is no longer welcome in many of Melbourne’s political spaces. I know too many people who have had similar experiences, but who have been called liars, ignored, lost friends and comrades, or been forced to remain silent. I can’t imagine how much harder it is for people who’ve survived sexual violence, and then been treated like this by those they thought they could trust, to keep on going.

When someone tells their friends or political comrades that they have experienced sexual violence, there are a number of common responses. Sometimes survivors who come forward are completely ignored. People who know the person who perpetrated sexual violence will say that they ‘don’t want to take sides’ and want to remain ‘neutral.’ Survivors are told that confronting a perpetrator of sexual violence will cause division in the movement or organisation. The personalities, political beliefs, lifestyles and appearance of survivors of sexual violence are scrutinised in minute detail. Survivors of sexual violence are called ‘crazy’ or seen as too emotional. If a survivor speaks out about violence they will often be presented as vindictively trying to wreck a perpetrator’s reputation. Perpetrators are frequently defended as being a ‘good person’ or a ‘good organiser’, as though this should excuse their violence. People attempt to justify their inaction by saying that they don’t want to act based on ‘rumours’ and that we should presume that a person accused of perpetrating sexual violence is ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Some activists tell survivors not to go to the police, because of their role in supporting state oppression, but all too often provide no alternative forms of support.

These attitudes are used to justify a status quo within the left and within broader society in which the interests of those who perpetrate sexual violence are prioritised over those who are survivors of sexual violence. Part of the problem with many responses to sexual violence is that we have absorbed various legalistic ideas from state criminal ‘justice’ systems which are sexist and are used to justify legal inaction. For instance, the idea that we shouldn’t rush to judge a person accused of committing violence and should instead presume that they are innocent. This flawed idea is used by many to argue that we should not take the word of survivors when they tell us they have experienced sexual violence. However, as Lisbeth Latham comments in a recent piece on the SWP, “If we think of the refrain ‘people accused of rape are innocent until proven guilty’ then the opposing logic also at play is that those marking allegations of rape ‘are guilty of lying about the allegation until proven innocent.’ Defendants and their supporters (both legal and extra-legal) focus their energy not on proving innocence, but on undermining the credibility of the survivor.” We need to reject the state’s narrative about how we should deal with accusations of sexual violence.

It is crucially important for us to point out that when we perpetuate these ideas about sexual violence we are making a political choice which has disastrous consequences for survivors of sexual violence. We know that false accusations of sexual violence are incredibly rare. We know that forcing survivors to jump through endless hoops by demanding they provide ‘proof’ before we listen to and believe them is incredibly harmful and makes it extremely difficult or them to speak out about sexual violence. We know that our continual inaction allows perpetrators to continue abusing people within our communities with impunity. And we know that how we respond to sexual violence currently is killing our political organisations and movements, and frustrating their capacity to challenge sexism, racism, capitalism, and other forms of oppression and exploitation.

So, here’s what I think needs to happen: We need to make a political choice to believe survivors of violence. We need to bring gendered violence out into the open by treating survivors with trust and compassion, rather than hostility. We need to take people at their word when they tell us that they have experienced violence, including gendered and sexual violence, without requiring them to tell us about every little detail of what happened. And more than this, we need to make a choice to prioritise survivors in our political work. This means that we should have survivor-centred responses to sexual violence – where the needs and desires of survivors determine our response. We need to be open to excluding people responsible for sexual violence, at the discretion of the survivor, from our political spaces, or ganisations, and movements. And we need to be prepared to support survivors in engaging with the people who harmed them through accountability processes, if that is what they’d like to do. Most of all, though, we need to make it a political priority to actively support sexual violence survivors through all of the personal and political challenges that come in the aftermath of being assaulted.

Asking a perpetrator to leave an organisation or political space on the word of a survivor is often a point which divides people within the left. We have to remember that people are not entitled to be involved in our political spaces. Many of us would accept the need to reject an active Liberal Party member who wanted to join a radical political group based on their oppressive ideology. We need to be open to taking the same approach to those whose actions are a form of violent oppression. In my experience, knowing that I am unlikely to run into the person who raped me at a political space has made a world of difference to my ongoing recovery, especially in environments where I know I would be supported by those around me if I did see him. Asking someone to leave our spaces does not deny them their freedom or safety. But if we refuse to ask perpetrators to leave our spaces we are effectively risking the safety of survivors and forcing many survivors to self-exclude. Moreover, as women are a significant majority of sexual violence survivors, not dealing with sexual violence has the effect of reinforcing women’s oppression in our movements.

Gendered violence does not occur in a social vacuum – any response we make within our organisations and movements will be limited in scope. We will never be truly safe or free from violence while we live in a society fundamentally shaped by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Excluding perpetrators from our spaces can enable survivors to feel relatively safe in our movements, but it doesn’t prevent sexual violence from being committed in the first place or in other areas of society. To create a society in which sexual violence is no longer a tool of misogynist and racist oppression we need structural systemic change – in short, a revolution.

An essential part of fighting rape culture involves identifying these structural systems of oppression and exploitation which allow people to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity. We need to fight the dominant ideologies which suggest that some people deserve to be victims of violence, and bear responsibility for the harm that is done to them – whether because of their clothes, race, gender identity; or because they are a refugee, poor, in prison, or a sex worker. Yet it is not enough to merely struggle against sexism and sexual violence at a structural or ideological level. If we are ever going to build the collective power required to challenge these systems of oppression we must make a committed effort to challenge violence and other actions which reinforce oppression within our political organisations, our social movements, our friendship groups and all other areas of life.

Why would anyone believe talk of a post-revolutionary society without sexism if we cannot support survivors of sexual violence in our midst and take a stand against those who perpetrate gendered violence among us?

There are tentative signs of a growing movement against sexual violence on the left. In 2004, three women were raped at a large punk festival in Philadelphia in the US. The concert organisers established two collectives to support the survivors and hold the rapists to account. The collectives became Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up which continued this work for a period of six years. Organisers of the 2012 Toronto and New York Anarchist bookfairs asked people who had been accused of sexual violence, and who were not actively engaging in some sort of accountability process, to not attend the events. Closer to home, groups like A World Without Sexual Assault and Stepping Up in Melbourne have provided support to survivors, facilitated accountability processes, and run awareness-raising workshops.

We need to continue to build on these political gains in our organising in Melbourne. One new project that that I am excited about aims to bring together collective wisdom about how organisations can respond to sexual violence in a way which genuinely supports survivors. This website resource will also gather together ideas about how tools like grievance collectives can be used to confront other oppressive behaviour, such as racist or sexist conduct. We will be inviting anarchist, socialist, social justice, environmental and other activist groups to commit to acting in accordance with this advice. As part of this commitment, groups will need to run workshops where their members can discuss practical ways they can avoid perpetuating destructive responses to sexual violence and avoid reinforcing systemic oppression. (If you’re interested in getting involved in this project, contact Anarchist Affinity and we’ll pass your details on to the organising collective).


For too long sexual violence survivors have been sacrificed at the altar of ‘movement building.’ This approach has a massively destructive impact on survivors, but it also prevents us from creating the kind of movements that we need. We must create social movements which build the revolutionary collective power of the working classes to confront all systems of oppression and exploitation. But to do this we need to start practicing what we preach. We need to challenge misogynist attitudes about sexual violence within our midst and create enduring structures which allow us to support survivors and hold perpetrators to account. Only then can we genuinely claim to be fighting for anarchism and social justice.


‘What is rape apologism?’

Em BC, ‘Misogyny and the left – we need to start practicing what we preach’

‘Betrayal – a critical analysis of rape culture in anarchist subcultures’


(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey, 2006.

(2) VicHealth (2004) ‘The Health Costs of Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence.’

From Image by Suzy X

Posted By

Mar 18 2014 11:47


Attached files


Mar 27 2014 23:00

At the root of the original post on confronting sexual violence is that reports of abuse must be taken seriously - I agree completely, and thank the article contributor for her effort and bravery in sharing her experience, as well as others who have shared thoughts about traumatic experiences.

I sometimes provide help as a volunteer at a couple of community centres, and have done for years. We have been able to respond when we were approached by a person who we were told was sexually assaulted. We immediately arranged for a friend of the complainant to say that we take the report seriously. Considering that we knew the accused, a letter was written stating that a serious accusation has been made which must be adequately resolved. We let the complainant know that as a matter of safety and protection, the accused was no longer allowed at the community centre until the accusation has been resolved. The complainant wanted to meet with us and an emergency meeting was held within a few days. A couple of people were able to provide specialist experience about help for interviewing of vulnerable witnesses, inter-agency protection meetings with health, legal help, social services and cops. The informal support which the complainant wanted was continued for a few months. Cops did not treat the complainant with any respect (essentially they said there was too little evidence because there was a delay in deciding to report the abuse) which is not correct because in some cases decisions can be made on balance of probability, focussing on witness statements and instead of objective physical evidence. A former friend of the accused said that the police interview concluded that the accused was too drunk to verify whether sexual assault occurred or not, but denied it anyway. The accused is known to us, and in these circumstances has been formally ostracised.

We must treat safety as a central issue. I feel that there is plenty reason to consider working on our strengths and weakness. Resources we have and don't have. On impartiality (being objective) and advocacy (taking sides) outside and inside our organisations, and the working class in general.

On this and the other related thread, I think that the earlier context example of false acusations was in relation to parental adversity which is sometimes a dirty tactic used by both fathers and mothers, see the book "Divorced poison - How to protect your family from bad-mouthing and brainwashing" by Dr Richard Warshak. I have witnessed more than one case where false accusations happen and it resulted in emotional abuse of children.

Mar 28 2014 04:58
On this and the other related thread, I think that the earlier context example of false acusations was in relation to parental adversity which is sometimes a dirty tactic used by both fathers and mothers, see the book "Divorced poison - How to protect your family from bad-mouthing and brainwashing" by Dr Richard Warshak. I have witnessed more than one case where false accusations happen and it resulted in emotional abuse of children.

This is a banned topic and really irrelevant to either discussion. It was never even raised on the other discussion. But since it keeps coming up all the time I suggest rather than basing their beliefs on anecdotes and self help books people actually research it. There are a lot of studies out there on it and they suggest that the incidence is under 10% and that even that is probably exaggerated due to reports being withdrawn plus low incidences of reporting of child abuse in the first place. Plus as stated before the court system isn't exempt from sexism.

Mar 28 2014 05:08
AES wrote:
On this and the other related thread, I think that the earlier context example of false acusations was in relation to parental adversity which is sometimes a dirty tactic used by both fathers and mothers,

There was no talk of false allegations on the thread you linked to.

Mar 28 2014 12:06

I could understand precaution, if arguements dismissive of the seriousness of abuse were being made. Attitudes towards false accusations are at the centre of this article - the fundemental of this article is noted as to "believe" reports of abuse (which I see as advocacy - taking sides) but the fact is that in practice the usual response used by various protection 'agencies' (workers in the field of protection such as health visitors, education, social work, psychologists, etc) is to "take seriously" reports of abuse (to be impartial - objective).

Child abuse case details cannot be publically discussed because of risk to children and to protect their identity. I have carefully read Dr Richard Warshak study which is based on experience, it's not anecdotal. In an example which I witnessed, it was the children that were most heavily effected by the false accusation, thereafter it was the wrongly accused carer. The study recommends that the interests of children are paramount, which is correct. I believe we can learn a lot from the experience of inter-professional studies by workers in the field of protection.

Our organisations and community centres have a lot to learn about impartiality (being objective) and advocacy (taking sides), so I will remain open-minded.

I came to revolutionary ideas when I witnessed a shooting of 19 people dead and where another 22 were left injured.

I am against all forms of miscarriage of justice.

Mar 28 2014 12:36

AES, if you want to have a discussion about false accusations of child abuse in divorces maybe you could start a new thread.

Mar 28 2014 14:05

I think the article makes very clear how claims of being impartial actually work in the abuser's favour. Also, the article is talking about radical groups, not about people who work in fields where they have the power or authority over the accused that could lead to legal ramifications. Asking someone who has been accused of abuse to leave a space, to make it safer for survivors, is not the same as someone working I'm the community or legal sector restricting someone's freedoms.

Furthermore, with the vast majority of rape allegations being true, you would think more time would be spent on the injustices faced by survivors, who often have to withdraw from radical spaces and activism due to lack of support and victim blaming but any attempt to go us on this group of people is always derailed by those who want to focus, primarily on what an injustice the small percent of false allegations are.

Mar 28 2014 14:34

The balance of probability is 1:100. Explain to me how this can mean anything other than supporting survivors? Seriously I'm good at maths, explain it to me.....

Mar 28 2014 16:36
EmC wrote:
Anyway something I've been noticing in this discussion... I think a lot if men just don't have much empathy with women. A lot of people here seem horrified by the idea of violence against an innocent man but the most awful stories of rape against children which have been told on this thread don't even merit an "I'm sorry that happened" from the same posters. Maybe you just think that it goes without saying that such stories are terrible, I don't know. But something I've noticed over the years is that people don't like survivors, especially ones who speak out. People are often disgusted by them in fact. I think part of this is that men - and women, but especially men - are taught not to empathize with women. And I think they have material incentive of male privalidge not to empathize too. I think this silence is both a product of that and helps reinforce it.

This! I think this is one of the major reasons why we continually have to have discussions over this, why so many anarchists all of a sudden loves bourgeois, liberal principles of innocent until proven guilty. There's so much I want to write about precisely this due to recent experiences with supporting a rape survivor against our anarchist organization (Common Cause Ontario; our branch left because of what happened); the survivor was treated like a problem, a thing, not a human being. Absolutely no empathy towards the survivor on behalf of almost the entire organization that was busy thinking about their "reputation" rather than actually fighting rape culture. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that there was a complete lack of empathy; not even an attempt at trying to put yourself in the position of the survivor. The result being traumatizing the survivor over and over again.

Mar 28 2014 17:15
Khawaga wrote:
The only explanation that makes sense to me is that there was a complete lack of empathy; not even an attempt at trying to put yourself in the position of the survivor.

Social psychologists have tried to explain phenomena like victim blaming as cognitive bias:

Mar 29 2014 01:00

no1, that is part of it, but it doesn't explain the difference in reaction to someone saying "I was mugged" to "I was raped". It just can't be explained without misogyny.

I think with women not believing women the just world hypothesis is definitely part of it. In particular I think for women believing that rape is something that could happen to them is very scary and sometimes victim blaming allows them to avoid that. But there's a lot more to it.

With women it's also that a lot of them have been sexually assaulted and are in denial about it. The thing with Assange was a good example. A lot of women responded with "well that happened to me and I don't consider it rape". Accepting that certain things are rape would mean they couldn't repress their own feelings any more.

Both men and women are trained to feel disgust at someone who's been raped. Rape isn't considered just a crime. Someone who's been raped is considered "defiled". There is the perception that they are ruined and can never recover. I have noticed people are a lot more comfortable talking about preventing rape than supporting survivors. People also talk a lot more about how to "rehabilitate" perpetrators than survivors. I think people both empathize with perps more but also just don't think it's possible for survivors to recover. So they're just written off as a casualty.

There is the way men use things like rape jokes to bond. Like someone mentioned about their new work place people using misogyny as a way to try to include them and make friends. That is just training each other not to have empathy for women.

Also, accepting that sexual assault was really a common problem in the left would mean having to make some big changes. Those would mean men having to give up some of their privalidges. It would mean they'd have to do something about the culture in groups that enables gendered violence and misogyny. It would mean having to face that some of our friends, people we respect and people who play (some) useful roles in organisations are predators and will have to stop being involved in the left.

Its a lot easier to avoid having to do all that stuff. But the only way to do that is to either not believe survivors or not have empathy with them. Usually in that order. First a survivor is questioned and disbelieved. If they are finally able to prove that they really were abused, or get enough support that they at least can't be ignored, then people find reasons not to empathize with them. They are partly to blame. They did bad things too. They reacted badly. They've been too aggressive in the way they brought it up.

Finally if all else fails people just distance themselves from it. It didn't happen in our group. It didn't happen in our branch. That was a personal matter.... Etc. All of that also takes distancing themselves. Not thinking about it. Not empathizing.

Khawaga is right that it traumatizes the survivor over and over again too. Rape itself takes really dehumanizing the victim. So then being dehumanized over and over in people's responses just keeps reinforcing that.

Mar 29 2014 01:21

Another tactic worth mentioning, is justifying attacking one survivor by supposedly defending other more worthy survivors. For example calling what Assange did "rape" trivializes "real rape". That is the typical way it's done, but I've seen other versions. There was quite a creative use of this tactic on the IWW thread.

Mar 29 2014 15:21
If they are finally able to prove that they really were abused, or get enough support that they at least can't be ignored, then people find reasons not to empathize with them. They are partly to blame. They did bad things too. They reacted badly. They've been too aggressive in the way they brought it up.

This is exactly the reaction the survivor got from Common Cause; like the actual things said to the survivor. It's as if there is a rape culture playbook that people stick to. Easier than to think and actually confront the misogyny existing in our organizations.

Mar 29 2014 16:01
fleurnoire-et-rouge wrote:
Some things, sexual assault included, are not debate-worthy hypotheticals which are really good to have a great argument over. The whole subject is triggering.

If the problem with my response is it is triggering it's no less triggering than any one else's comments, or the article itself. To my knowledge people post trigger warnings on stuff that discusses the topic in any sense, be it supportive or playing devils advocate.

fleurnoire-et-rouge wrote:
C I can't apolagise for everything shit that happened ever because I wouldn't have time to live otherwise.

No-one's asking you to.

I think you'll find EmC is

A lot of people here seem horrified by the idea of violence against an innocent man but the most awful stories of rape against children which have been told on this thread don't even merit an "I'm sorry that happened" from the same posters

fingers malone
Mar 29 2014 16:46

Croy, the problem isn't just because it's triggering. If something bad happens to me, and I wonder if I should maybe tell someone, I might think to myself, "will I get treated like shit?" If I see that pretty much any time someone mentions rape or domestic violence within the left/anarchist movement, the first thing that happens is OMG FALSE ACCUSATIONS then I might think the best thing to do is slink off quietly and say nothing, leaving people occasionally asking "whatever happened to fingers malone?"

and the point about expressing some basic human sympathy is that people seem quicker to say "but it would be terrible if an innocent man was beaten up" (which I agree, btw, would be terrible) but here are women saying that they were actually, not hypothetically, raped or beaten up and not getting hardly any sympathy at all. And this is mirrored by what happens in wider society, not just on Libcom.

Mar 29 2014 18:01

admin note: off topic comment by AES unpublished. Further off topic comments will also be removed and will result in a warning

Mar 29 2014 19:06

Emc, I don't want you to have a wholly terrible idea of the worthiness of bothering with all of this. Frankly what you've said has made me fairly petrified that I myself may one day commit the knee-jerk reaction of doubting a rape survivor, because from what I gather it seems an extremely impulsive behaviour that operates on a different level to what we understand as thinking. I'm quite sure that when something like this crops up in my future, the first or at least second or third thing I'm going to think about are the things said on threads like this. I can tell you with certainty I was great deal less conscious about the nature of it all beforehand.

Mar 29 2014 19:13

I've just posted up a thread in the forums, because I wanted to answer Croy's post without derailing this further.

Mar 31 2014 02:05

Kureigo-San, thanks for listening smile
I have had to do a lot of re-examining my own views over the last few years, basically realised I was engaging in a lot of rape apologism and denial. This wasn't a pleasant process for me. It brought up a lot of trauma, and also made me realise what an asshole I'd been at times. This is also why I am not very sympathetic to people complaining about "call out culture" (though I do acknowledge sometimes, rarely, it goes too far). Rape culture is really deeply ingrained in our society and our consciousness. I don't think it can be tip toed around. I think it needs to be tackled head on and it's always going to be an extremely difficult discussion for everyone involved.

Jan 12 2017 06:41
Fleur wrote:
Given that we know (and we do know that, don't we?) that the number of false allegations are very, very low, surely it should be the default position to to lay the emphasis on supporting the survivor and one of the basic ways of doing that is to try to not further undermine their feeling of safety by allowing the accused to be hanging around in the same spaces. It's not a lot to ask.
Absolutely, some people's reputations are at stake. However, the minute a survivor speaks up, their reputations are destroyed. You can have as many policies and statements in place as you like but anyone who has ever spoken up about sexual violence perpetrated against them have been subject to conjecture, gossip, victim blaming, assumptions of lying etc, especially if the man involved has any redeeming features (oh, he's such a nice guy - he wouldn't do that.) And we all know this, it's the thing which stops us from speaking out in the first place, knowing the kind of shit we're going to take, because we've seen it happen to other people. So, it's completely ludicrous to imagine that there are armies of vindictive women willing to lay down false rape accusations in order to vilify someone we don't like, or to get revenge on an ex etc. We're not stupid, we know the score, if you speak up your life turns to crap.
If any organization wants to have women participating and wants them to stay, they should bear this in mind.

Fleur's politics are on POINT here and I hope they are a key voice in IWW discussions about this topic. Thanks!