I had a great time on KPFK last night. I like doing radio programs; there’s something thrilling about the adrenaline rush of being “live”, not having a script, and knowing that there’s nothing worse in the world than “dead air.” (The link to last night’s program is here; lots of pitching for Pacifica Radio but also some clips of Jackson Katz and me as we chat with the hosts of Feminist Magazine. I don’t come on until about 16 minutes into the one-hour show.)
The last question that both Jackson and I were asked revolved around what we saw as our biggest challenge as male feminist activists. I had a moment to think about it while Jackson gave his reply, and I flashed immediately to a meeting I’d had in my office yesterday morning. Dinah, one of my students, is a sexual assault survivor. A year ago, while working on a progressive political campaign in the Midwest, she was raped by a renowned male activist, a man in his thirties. Dinah was eighteen 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 eighteen 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 campaign was hostile to law enforcement, viewing the police through a class and race-conscious lens of suspicion. Instead of calling the cops, 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 a SNCC staff meeting. Stokely Carmichael reputedly responded, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
Forty years on, Stokely Carmichael’s view of female activists in the social justice movement remains astonishingly — infuriatingly — common. Dinah, who was born in 1991, isn’t the first young woman I’ve known to be raped or abused or harassed by a male compatriot in an ostensibly progressive organization. These assaults happen in ethnic organizations like MEChA, in animal liberation/welfarist groups like the ALF or PETA, in anti-war coalitions like ANSWER. That’s not a comprehensive list, mind you. But what all these groups 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. Continue reading