I was a teenager when I first felt this shiver so deep that it made my blood run cold.
I still remember his face, and what he told me after I grabbed his hands as forcefully as I could, and moved them away from my breasts. “What, are you a lesbian?”, he laughed. His friends smirked as a rage quickly swelled up inside me. Yet all I could muster was a balled up fist, and clenched teeth. I would fight myself each day for months, asking why I hadn’t been brave enough to excise every tooth from his face. I’d go through these same battles as I grew older, and one day I realised that all the harassment, and violent assaults began dictating not only how I behaved but what I thought of myself and my humanity.
There is no way to describe what it feels like to know that once the totality of what you’ve endured leaves your lips you’ll be forever changed in someone else’s eyes, even those of your loved ones, and comrades. It is now out in the world, and the consequences are beyond your control.
The way in which sexual abuse is consumed—and the fact that it is consumed at all—has normalized even its most horrific aspects. Sexual violence against women, specifically, has become central to films, television programs, and novels—the reality of this trauma is there for audiences to view, process, and for industries to commodify. The more horrific and dehumanizing, the better. This ongoing saturation of depictions of abuse continues to impact how rape is understood, and what language we use when discussing sexual violence.
Women who occupy spaces on the left are having to navigate this terrain, the same as others, fully aware that their male comrades will not save them, and may often engage in perpetuating this abuse. This violence and abusive behavior appears not only during physical interactions with women but in the jokes they tell, the stories they amplify, and in their refusal to challenge the language they employ. Our leftist communities are not immune to this brutality—there are even times in which the political associations of our comrades are used against us in a way that absolves them of their wrongdoings. We are told that they are pillars of the community, that they’re admired, they didn’t mean it, that we must have misunderstood, and on it goes. The excuses are as reactionary as those coming from any other space, and we are forced to combat them just as other women, to prove our humanity.
If we are ever to dismantle oppression on a global and institutional scale, then we must first revolutionize our political spaces. And we begin that process, at the very least, by acknowledging the necessity of women’s liberation and its importance in the wider fight against capitalism. Combatting the reinforcement of patriarchy in our communities means challenging the way in which exploitation is reproduced amongst ourselves—how trauma is used as fodder for jokes, how silence is encouraged in order to spare our organizations from media attention, how victims are manipulated into questioning their memories, and feelings.
If we are to do more than turn socialism into a hollow aesthetic, then these men (and, oftentimes, women) who so often ignore the violence of their comrades must change. And this means that the women who knowingly amplify abusers, who entertain their rape apologia and accompanying jokes, should be expelled from our ranks should they not amend their behavior. Your friends and their degrading jokes aren’t worth the air they consume, and the trauma they generate has a lasting impact that goes well beyond your fan clubs. You can’t promote socialism while at the same time maintaining political, and social relationships with those who see women as property and punchlines. It is imperative that attitudes towards violence against women, and women’s liberation, change, and that as socialists we do more than speak out after occasions wherein trauma is publicly exposed.
So, ask yourself, as socialists, and as leftists, what exactly are you fighting for? Is it the dismantling of these exploitative, violent systems? Is it the rejection of patriarchal institutions in favor of emancipatory socialism? Or is your existence in these political spaces for selfish ends? What are you doing to build an anti-capitalist future, free from exploitation? There’s a reason we’re not laughing, and it’s not because we can’t take a joke, it’s because the pain, humiliation, and misery brought on by abuse and violence against women isn’t funny. We don’t ask that you simply “do better”, but that you do better or get out of our way.