At the beginning of the 21st century, British women have had the vote for almost 100 years. We’ve got access to contraception and abortion, have equal pay legislation and maternity pay, and can even stand as MPs. We have seen the rise of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement which won demands for oppressed groups to be treated with more respect and fairness. As a result of these we have won rights like legal freedom from sexual harassment and abortion. It is not entirely stigmatised to be single, childless, a single parent or lesbian. Women’s role within family life has altered and women are told that they have choice. Women can now “have it all”. They can be mothers, workers, or even strippers, and all of these things can be an interpretation of “womanhood”.
That’s not to say that these rights aren’t under attack. Tory ministers are lining up to argue that abortion should be limited to much earlier in pregnancy and women still earn 20% less than men. But the freedom of women and girls to live safely, without fear of physical and sexual violence, has never been won. In fact, far from it: conservative estimates suggest that over 1,300 women are raped every week. A woman rings the police every single minute to report domestic violence and two women die every week at the hands of their partner or ex-partner.
As we’ve seen in recent years, there are always people ready to cover up for perpetrators and blame victims instead. The BBC has been revealed to have been covering up for a predatory sex offender who targeted young girls. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is avoiding trial for rape, the Socialist Workers Party has imploded in a rape scandal and the RMT union has been criticised for its handling of a case of domestic violence.
These problems aren’t new, but there’s a developing battlefield about consent and freedom from violence which is forcing these issues into the media. It exploded in January 2011 when a Toronto police officer giving a talk to a group of students said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. This led to a worldwide movement as women and men took to the streets in protest to reclaim the term “slut” and declare that women were not to blame for rape. Not long after, Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative justice secretary at the time, went on radio and distinguished between “serious rape” and “date rape”. The interviewer asked Clarke about the lowering of rape sentences, which then averaged 5 years. Clarke replied: “serious rape where, you know, violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff, i.e. the sentence, is much longer than that”. When the interviewer responded by saying “rape is rape”, Clarke argued, saying, “no it’s not ... they include date rapes which can sometimes be very confusing”. The use of the word “unwilling”, implying that some women are raped willingly, caused a fierce reaction, but these views are disturbingly common.
These are not just conservative views. Last year George Galloway argued that if Julian Assange is guilty of anything it was “bad sexual etiquette” because it is not necessary to ask permission before each “insertion”. Julian Assange is accused of raping two women. They were already in the “sex game”, according to Galloway, because they had gone out to dinner the night before, had sex and slept in the same bed. Does Galloway believe that permanent consent is even possible? What does that mean for women who are raped within marriage? In an attempt to dismiss rape, the women who came forward were even accused of being CIA agents. This was the same week as a US republican Todd Akin argued that abortion should never be an option. He said that when it’s a “legitimate” rape, women’s bodies have a way of shutting down and preventing pregnancy.
As shocked as many of us are when prominent figures, especially on the left, say things like this, it reflects how rape is seen within society and how victims are blamed. It is only in regards to violence against women, especially rape, that there is such acceptance that the victim may be to blame. But there is a movement building against this. Trade and student unions have passed motions “no platforming” rape apologists. This may not be the chosen tactic of revolutionary socialists, who would wish to reserve such a sanction for fascists, but it is reassuring that there are those in the labour movement taking this seriously.
The societal view that women should take responsibility for rape is widespread. It is reinforced by the courts and the media. Many people believe that victims can be blamed for all sorts of reasons. A 2010 research report by Havens, “Wake Up To Rape”, found that 56% of those who participated in a London-based survey thought that in some circumstances the victim must accept some responsibility. Out of those 56%:
- 73% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d performed another sexual act on their attacker
- 66% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d gone to bed with them
- 64% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d drunk to excess or “blacked out”
- 29% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d gone to their attacker’s home for a drink
- 28% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d dressed provocatively
- 22% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d danced in a sexy way with a man at a nightclub or bar
- 21% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d acted flirtatiously
- 14% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d kissed their attacker
- 13% thought that the victim was responsible if they’d accepted a drink and engaged in a conversation at a bar
The recent scandal involving Jimmy Savile demonstrates how those in power are protected by those around them. Jimmy Savile was a BBC celebrity. He was knighted by the queen and was close friends with Margaret Thatcher. This meant he was protected despite being a sexual predator of children. After his death in 2011 journalists at Newsnight tried to air an expose of his crimes. It was blocked by those in charge and instead the BBC broadcast a tribute to him. Savile knew he was untouchable, even boasting in his 1978 autobiography “Love Is an Uphill Thing” of how an underage girl who had run away from a remand home stayed overnight with him before he handed her over at a police station the next morning. No action was taken, he wrote, “for it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me”.
This year, when a group of Asian men were convicted of years of sex crimes in Rochdale, the tabloids claimed investigations were blocked because of supposed “sensitivities” about race. Muslim men were told to take responsibility, and it was argued that Islam and its attitudes towards sex and women led these men to prey on young, white girls. The real reason that the cases were not investigated was because the girls who made complaints were not taken seriously and blamed for their predicament. The problem wasn’t race or religion, but society’s attitudes to young, vulnerable girls. The newspapers that feign shock and despair are the same newspapers that treat women as sexual commodities every day. A recent Facebook campaign has attacked the Sun for its page 3 and protests were held at the Sun’s offices over its treatment of women.
Savile was a particularly predatory example of a child sexual abuser and a rapist to boot – but this is the thin end of the wedge. It was not uncommon for male celebrities to abuse their position and have sex with underage fans. That’s why the media’s reaction is so unpalatable. This was widespread. Savile was one of the most shocking examples, but not one of the only ones. Because Savile was part of the establishment and had friends in the media and police he was never brought to justice as a serial child abuser.
The Socialist Workers Party has recently found itself unable to operate following the revelation that it had attempted to hold its own investigation into an alleged rape by a leading member, and been found wanting. The quasi-judicial panel was made up of the accused’s long-standing friends and colleagues, asked the two women about their sexual history and drinking habits, and returned with a verdict of “not proven”. The women involved, along with many who were opposed to this blatant sexism, found themselves slandered and bullied, as the leadership gerrymandered a ratification of these awful mistakes and wittered on about Lenin. Not long after, another woman came forward and reported that she had been treated with blame and disbelief by the disputes committee when she reported rape and domestic violence. Shocking behaviour like this may plague the media and the ruling class establishment, but revolutionary socialists should refuse to accept their leadership behaving like this. Many did. Many left.
It is not just in the UK that the fight for women to be free from violence is taking place. In 2011 a young woman lost her case in the US Supreme Court after she took her school to court for suspending her from the cheerleading squad. Her offence? To refuse to cheer somebody who had raped her. He had been charged with sexual assault, but pleaded guilty to “misdemeanor assault”, meaning he could return to school and wasn’t imprisoned. Not only was this condoned by the Supreme Court but she was ordered to pay the equivalent of approximately £27,000 damages for bringing the “frivolous” case.
The brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi and her subsequent death led to mass protests on the streets across India as demonstrators demanded that the police and courts take violence against women more seriously. In Steubenville, USA, two young men were convicted of raping an unconscious young woman – and the media coverage was appalling. Bemoaning that these young men’s lives and football careers were ruined, the major US news channels failed to mention the impact on the young woman who’d been thrown around like a doll whilst unconscious and repeatedly raped. The societal view, compounded by the media coverage, was that compared to these successful football star/grade A students this young woman didn’t matter. She’s been vilified and received death threats. In reference to the case, one moron posted “if you’re drunk/slutty at a party and embarrassed later, just say you got raped!” This is despite the pictures of the victim being posted all over the internet clearly demonstrating that she was unconscious.
Domestic violence and privilege
Domestic violence and rape are crimes that often take place in private, behind closed doors. To be told that someone has done something horrendous and abusive, especially if that someone is famous, is difficult – if they’re known to us personally, it’s even harder. People try to find ways of explaining it away. This is easier with sexual harassment. Those dismissing and minimising it may claim that a woman misunderstood, or it was a joke that was taken the wrong way.
There are very few ways to do this with rape or domestic abuse. The most often used is to assert that the woman is lying. The chances of being right if we take that position are minimal - false accusations account for only 5% of all cases reported to the police. 1,300 women are raped each week, and most aren’t reported to the police. Chances are that if somebody tells you they’ve been raped, then they are telling the truth. It is the same with domestic violence. It is thought that less than a quarter of domestic assaults are reported to the police and that there are 13 million separate incidents of domestic physical violence or threats of violence against women every year. Believing women is not only statistically sensible, it is crucial to enable women to recover. Disbelief and blame of victims re-traumatises them.
Domestic abuse is complex, involving the persistent and sustained control and manipulation of women (and sometimes men) and those around them by their partner. The violence itself is never the whole picture – it includes insults, mind games, bullying and manipulating children. Emotional and psychological abuse will be happily dismissed by witnesses and friends as a “crap relationship”. This is a weak and sorry position which fails to acknowledge the obvious fact – very few women will remain in relationships where they are assaulted if the perpetrator hasn’t first convinced them that they deserve it. It involves facilitating the emotional and physical exhaustion of women, best achieved by taking no part in domestic or childcare tasks, often by prolonged periods of absence from the home, often with no explanation (also causing worry). This is known within domestic violence work as “abuse of male privilege”. It is a factor of domestic abuse that can often take place without other forms of domestic abuse.
Revolutionary socialism often claims that men do not benefit from women’s oppression. Well in the long term almost certainly not. Women’s oppression including domestic violence and sexual abuse divide our class and prevent us from achieving the solidarity required to overthrow class society. But to say there is no benefit – this is failing to acknowledge the real and tangible experiences of working class women, including the most miserable experiences. If a man rapes somebody or assaults his partner, he benefits from the failure of society, the police and courts in taking that rape seriously. If a man behaves as he wishes, while a woman is at home cooking and cleaning and caring for children, he has less to do and is in control. That is a tangible benefit and a privilege he is not entitled to.
It is clear that violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, continues to be a weapon used against half of the class. It seems clear that this is detrimental to the class as a whole, including men, undermining the basis of our solidarity. The men who perpetrate these crimes demean themselves. One would hope that at the very least they experience occasional shame. But it is also clear that reducing this to an argument about class solidarity is no longer tenable for revolutionary socialists. In every one of the cases discussed in this article, as is the case in all domestic and sexual abuse, the male perpetrators experienced a tangible benefit. They gained something that they had no right to – either sexual gratification or power or both. In many cases the apologism around these crimes benefitted future perpetrators.
So what is next for revolutionary socialists who are ready to fight on this issue? Unity with all of those who oppose gender violence is essential. But crucially, that unity means learning from activists who have been at the forefront of the fight for women’s freedom. This time, it is about our freedom from abuse, and we have a great deal to learn about how to fight for it.