Because activist groups so ardently fight for a particular cause, a female members’ basic rights are often overlooked, says Hugo Schwyzer.
One of the better students I’ve had in recent years came by to see me the other day; she’s transferred on but wanted to stop by and say hello before leaving junior college for a four-year university. She gave me an update on her story—one that’s all too familiar in activist circles.
Three summers ago, while working on a progressive political campaign in the Midwest, she was raped by a renowned male activist, a man in his 30s. Dinah was 18 at the time. (Dinah wants her anonymity protected, hence the pseudonym and no specifics about the group with which she and the perp were affiliated.)
Dinah has been politically engaged since she was in junior high school, working on a host of left-wing causes. Articulate and brave, as soon as she turned 18 she spent school breaks traveling around the country working on various campaigns. And on one such campaign, while traveling alone with this celebrated male activist through rural Wisconsin, she was raped by this man she looked up to and admired.
The “culture” of this particular campaign was hostile to law enforcement, viewing the police through a class and race-conscious lens of suspicion. Trained never to trust the police, Dinah confided the truth about what had happened to some women in the movement, who insisted that she keep quiet. What had happened, she was told, was “regrettable” and “unfair,” but the harm was to her alone (or so these other activists claimed). They suggested to Dinah that she consider the “good” her rapist was doing for the cause. “He’s helping so many,” she was told, “and he hurt you. Isn’t it better to just avoid him? We’ll warn him to shape up, but we can’t go further than that. He’s too valuable.”
Anyone who knows the history of sexual politics in liberation movements will recognize an old and familiar story. From Digital History:
Women within (Sixties-era) organizations for social change often found themselves treated as “second-class citizens,” responsible for kitchen work, typing, and serving “as a sexual supply for their male comrades after hours.” “We were the movement secretaries and the shit-workers,” one woman recalled. “We were the earth mothers and the sex-objects for the movement’s men.” In 1964, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson presented an indignant assault on the treatment of women civil rights workers in a paper entitled “The Position of Women in SNCC,” to an SNCC staff meeting. Stokely Carmichael reputedly responded, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
Nearly 50 years later, Stokely Carmichael’s view of female activists in the social justice movement remains astonishingly—infuriatingly—common. Dinah, who was born in the early ‘90s, isn’t the first young woman I’ve known to be raped, abused, or harassed by a male compatriot in an ostensibly progressive organization. What all groups that have tolerated this kind of behavior have in common is an ideological conviction that women’s liberation needs to take a back seat to something “more important.” It doesn’t matter whether that “more important” thing is fighting for farm workers, or stopping the war in Afghanistan, or liberating lab animals. In each instance, young women activists are warned that reporting sexually abusive behavior by a male fellow activist jeopardizes the movement and does irreparable harm to the cause — a cause, that the young victimized woman is always reminded, is so much bigger than her.
Obviously, sexual abuse is not just a phenomenon found on the left. It’s rampant in conservative churches, as we well know. But most secular progressives aren’t terribly surprised when organizations dedicated to upholding traditional sexist values condone or cover up the worst of sexist behavior. As a person of faith of course, I am appalled when religious texts I regard as sacred are distorted and deliberately misinterpreted to excuse or enable rape. And as a liberal, I am equally infuriated when women in supposedly progressive organizations are told that a climate of sexual harassment and abuse must be endured for the sake of some “greater good.”
Particularly among radicals, there remains an ugly tendency to see feminism as being a bourgeois white woman’s phenomenon. The insistence that women’s liberation is anti-revolutionary, or insignificant, or just so much liberal navel-gazing, allows rape culture to thrive in far too many radical political and ethnic organizations. And brave young women like Dinah get raped and tossed aside.
It is true that in 2012, women’s issues seem to have moved to the forefront of the national dialogue. At its convention in Charlotte, the Democratic Party did an excellent job of centering the fight for reproductive justice and equal pay. At the same time, even on the left, the relentless pressure to de-prioritize sexual liberation in favor of some other ideal remains. While feminism is not the only cause worth fighting for, the feminist principles of women’s equality, autonomy, and body integrity must be incorporated into every political and social movement.
We can’t build a more just world on the use and abuse of our most vulnerable—and our most committed—young activists. As a male feminist in particular, I know that ends and means must be congruent. Private virtue and public action need to be seamless. Private virtue without public action is irresponsible quietism; public action without private virtue guarantees both failure and heartache.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.