Editorial from Solidarity 453
The public scandal which has erupted in the wake of reports of historical and current sexual assaults in Hollywood, and now the UK Parliament, has brought to light a day-to-day reality. The #metoo campaign was “successful” because it touched on a truth. Almost every woman has experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment.
The public conversation in wake of the reports and allegations is welcome and important.
The revelations about Harvey Weinstein, with which this public conversation began, showed how men in positions of power can perpetrate abuse on, in his case, an industrial scale. It showed how far the powerful will go to cover up their abuse.
They showed how an “open secret”, the fear and collusion of people dependent on the powerful, allows abuse to continue. The contract Weinstein signed with his own company reportedly prevented the company from sacking him over any sexual assault allegation — if the money he use to pay for women’s silence came out of his own money.
A number of MPs have now either resigned from a cabinet position or had the whip suspended by their party, and are facing investigations. This includes more Tory MPs than Labour, but Labour MPs are involved. The fate of some MPs are hanging in the balance as we went to press, including First Secretary of State Damian Green. A spreadsheet compiled by Tory whips detailing the sexual conduct of 36 Tory MPs has been leaked to the press. Allegations mount up against party activists and staff members. These include: unwanted physical contact, manipulation and abuse of position to get someone to engage in sexual activity, harassing messages of a sexual nature and even rape.
The Tory whips’ list is information which had been gathered to use in factional battles, and some of is more to do with various MPs’ sexual proclivities, their closeted sexuality and porn habits, than abuse, nonetheless many MPs are accused of being “handsy” their whips’ euphemistic term for unwanted physical contact. That such a list exists is not a surprise to anyone who has worked in Parliament. It demonstrates how sexual abuse has not been taken seriously, only recorded to be potentially used in a future battle against a political opponent.
The biggest shift in the public perception of sexual assault and harassment is a recognition that it is not just “extreme” cases that count, but seemingly smaller acts — an unwanted hand on the knee, repeated “flirty” or sexual, text messages.
Actions which put a woman (and sometimes men) in the position of being an object. Actions which amount to ostentatious and often unrelenting displays of power.
A 2016 Trade Union Congress (TUC) report, surveying different industries, showed an average of 52% of women experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work. In some industries it was much higher — up to 67% in hospitality.
Male managers often use sexual violence to exert their power over mainly women workers in jobs such as cleaning.
Male workers may also target women managers who they see as “posing a threat” to their power. In our book Why Socialist Feminism? we quoted political activist Kavita Krishnan on the situation of women in India: ″With the opening up on the market, women are more visible in the workplace [...] That they are entering male bastions of power has challenged the sense of superiority and entitlement of the traditional Indian male.″
Sexual harassment takes place in the relatively intimate space of the workplace but it also takes place in public places. In a 2015 survey of women who used the Paris Metro 100% said they had been sexually harassed on the Metro, and half of them said the first time it happened was before they were 18. In a 2012 survey of London women 40% said they had been sexual harassed or assaulted in a public place in the last year.
This is not something perpetrated by a small number of “bad eggs” in toxic workplaces or other institutions. It is perpetrated by a large proportion of “normal” men. That raises the question of what causes this behaviour? Why has it largely been considered ok?
The answer lies in the structure of society, the relative positions of power of men and women and other disparities of power.
Shamefully, while this welcome and so far fairly productive conversation about sexual harassment is taking place, some on the left still seem not to take this issue seriously. The Skwawkbox website, publishing Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins’ denial of allegations against himself, added an introduction implying that the “mainstream” media wouldn’t publish Hopkins’ statement because the allegation was a witch-hunt against the left. Another leftist blog post (The Framing of Kelvin Hopkins MP) used every sexist trope in the book against the women who raised the allegations of abuse – criticising her clothes, her manner, her politics, asking why she didn’t defend herself, etc.
There is, and will be, abuse on the left. Left-wing men who are otherwise sound politically may also be perpetrators. All allegations should always be treated seriously, and be taken up using proper procedures (with due process for those accused), whatever the politics of the person who makes the allegation.
The culture around the Corbynite Labour left of constantly looking for the next right-wing witch hunt, of turning every accusation into a conspiratorial attack by the right, is not healthy. It is fine to criticise the Labour right wing for failing to act against sexism when they were in power. It is not okay to belittle women making accusations. The culture of knee jerk reactions against the right may have led the woman who has made allegations against Clive Lewis to keep those allegations quiet, in her own words because she “respected him as a politician” and thought Lewis was “a good guy” who has “consistently stuck up for good left-wing values”.
The scandal in Parliament is not over. More allegations are likely to come to light, and many more will not be publicly reported.
And while allegations against celebrities and politicians make good newspaper headlines, women continue to suffer daily sexual assault and harassment at work, at home, and on the streets. What can we do?
Throughout labour movement history collective struggles have contributed to shifting the attitude of male workers towards women and increasing women’s confidence and security.
Union organisation can make a big difference to sexual assault and harassment at work in the first place by tackling the issue itself, fighting for robust codes of conduct, reporting policies, and sanctions in workplaces. These already exist, more or less, in some unionised public sector workplaces. We should get them generalised. By so doing we would also institutionalise due-process protections for those facing charges.
Unions can also address the issue by increasing the power of workers against their bosses. Well-paid, secure jobs with guaranteed hours will help address sexual harassment at work too.
If women aren′t reliant on putting up with harassment to keep their job, to get the extra hours they need, to get the tips that supplement their income, they will be better able to report abuse.