The recent scandal in the Socialist Workers Party has reignited a lot of issues around rape within radical communities, and more generally. One of the themes raised by this issue has been the establishment of a kangaroo court which exonerated the accused. Commentators have questioned both why the police were not involved in this case, whether there was pressure from the party to avoid police involvement and given a lack of police involvement what the correct response of the party should have been. These issues are much bigger than just this instance and are worth looking at in a generalised sense.
Like many people my first awareness of the phenomenon of rape was through crime-based television shows. I may be showing my age here, but TJ Hooker, LA Vice and Cagney and Lacey all taught me what rape was. Rape was something done by a brutal stranger who most usually murdered their victim. Rapes were investigated through forensics in pathology labs or, for the lucky ones, interviews conducted from a hospital bed. Rape was not an isolated crime, but was part of “raped and murdered” or “raped and beaten”. Being “just raped” wasn’t a thing. The implication was that women would defend their honour more than they would defend their lives and men would kill their victims rather than allow a witness to such a hideous crime to bear testimony.
In the real world of course that isn’t the case. Most rapes are committed by people known to the victim who have some form of prior relationship with them, and most rape victims live to tell the tale – not that they do all that often of course. My first realisation of how common rape actually was came with the advent of the internet. Back in ye olden days, when the Information Superhighway was still in nappies and very american dominated, newsgroups sprang up where people could communicate semi-anonimously with one another. In one such newsgroup aimed at women, someone started a post asking “What’s your rape number?”, a play on the old question about sexual partners, it asked women how many times they had been raped. Of course, it would be more likely that women who had experienced sexual violence would respond to such a post, but the thread, by far the longest in that newsgroup, was deeply alarming. Although most of the numbers were in single figures, there were an shocking amount that reached two and even three digits – many victims of child sexual abuse simply couldn’t remember. It was eye-opening.
There is a general attitude, prevalent within society of “police or it didn’t happen”. A rapist – by the societal definition is not someone who has committed a rape, but someone who has been convicted of rape through a judical process. These are very different things. Only approximately 10% of rapes are ever reported to the police, and only 5% of those end in a conviction. Media reporting of rape is sensationalised, generally featuring extreme violence and/or multiple assailant, but in the real world, rape is far more mundane.
It is that very mundanity that allows so many rapists to get away with so many rapes. Victim-blaming and slut-shaming conspire with rape victim stereotypes and community pressure to prevent women naming their rapes in the first place, and even when they do acknowledge the violation to avoid police involvement to avoid being re-victimised. Under the law, women exist in a state of permanent consent. To secure a conviction for rape it is necessary to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the victim did not consent. It is this very “reasonable” that is the problem. If it would have been “reasonable” for the victim to give consent,they can kiss goodbye to the chances of a conviction. All a rapist need do is engender a situation where giving consent would be “reasonable”.
The process of reporting a rape is not a pleasant one. Although police attitudes have advanced greatly in the last few decades, it was from a very low starting point. As a rape victim you are more likely to be prosecuted for a false allegation should you go to the police than the rapist is to be convicted. Increasing numbers of women are also being gaoled for “wasting police time” or “perverting the course of justice” after going to the police with a complaint of rape. In such a climate it is unsurprising that women do not come forward. But there is another dimension which is rarely talked about. Most rapes occur between people who know each other in some capacity, and who have mutual friends, family or aquaintances – they occur within a community.
Which brings us back to the situation in the Socialist Worker Party….
In this instance, both perpetrator and victim were part of a definable community – let leave aside for the moment the fact that this was a political party, which claims to stand against women’s oppression – for the same situation is true of a chess club, a family or a workplace. In this instance, the woman chose not to report the rape to the authorities. It is certainly possible – as some have speculated - that pressure was brought to bear on her not to do so, but that explanation for why she did not report ignores the wider social factors that prevent women from going to the police and the fact that women are very aware that the police do not handle rape well.
Assuming that the victim chose independently not to report their rape to state authorities for all of the reasons above and probably more, while also being concerned for the safety of other women who might have encountered her rapist, the decision to inform the community, via an established body set up by that community to resolve difficulties within it was a sensible one. The question then becomes what should that body have done to minimise the chances of the perpetrator committing other sexual offenses.
The Socialist Worker Party has given a clear lead on what not to do – set up a mock version of a courtroom, appoint friends and workmates of the rapist as both investigators and jury in order to provide some semblance of cover to the exoneration of the rapist …but what then would have been the appropriate response in this situation? It has been suggested in a number of places that the SWP should either have passed this information on directly to the police for investigation, or informed the victim that they were not able to act on it and that she herself should go to the police.
The first suggestion – that the SWP should have passed the information over to the police and demanded an investigation is massively problematic. Given that the victim – for whatever reason – had chosen not to report the rape, it is not the place of others to over-rule her. No matter much they may have felt that they had identified a dangerous preditor who should be dealt with in accordance with the law of the land (not that they actually did, however!), reporting such a crime to the authorities, even without naming the victim, risks that she would become subject to police involvement as they investigated the crime and very possibly uncovered her identity.
The second suggestion – that the victim should have been told that she should go to police or there was nothing that could be done is a simultaneous demand placed on the victim, and a shrugging off off community responsibility. The choice of whether to report a sexual violation to the authorities should be an informed decision made by the victim, not a demand. Several commentators have suggested that it was negligent of her not to do so – that she had a responsibility to report to save other women from the same fate. Victims of sexual violation have no such responsibility. As someone who has been the victim of an intrusive and violating act, your responsibility is to yourself to heal, and frequently women find that healing process is hindered by the involvement of state authorities, who demand access to their body, to their sexual histories, to their personal lives and to their time. The prosecution of a rape lasts months, if not years, and women who report find themselves being continually triggered as reminders of the trauma come out of the blue with each phone call, while dreading the court appearance which forces them to relive their violation in detail in a semi-public arena as well as being left isolated within a community which has divided loyalties.
There are four aspects that they should have prioritised. Firstly the safety and wellbeing of the victim, secondly the safety and wellbeing of any other victims who may not have been prepared to inform the community of their victimisation, and thirdly the safety and wellbeing of any others who may be victimised in future and finally an examination of how the chances of such an occurance could be minimised in future. The co-operation of the victim in determining this can be requested, given that by coming forward she has indicated a willingness to engage, but should not be demanded as “her responsibility”. The community has a problem which they have now been made aware of and the community should tackle it.
- To prioritise the safety and wellbeing of the victim, she should have been asked whether there was any specific support that she needed from the community, and to be given an open door for further requests on an ongoing basis. Local or national support services can be suggested were she not aware of them, as well as radical groups which tackle such issues and can give her the specific support within that specific community. Any support that she needed to keep herself safe from the perpetrator within the community including the enforcement of boundaries she had set should have been provided.
- To prioritise the safety and wellbeing of other potential victims, it should have been made known that at least one women had suffered sexual victimisation by this named person. Someone with appropriate knowledge of the support services available should have been identified to handle any further instances of sexual abuse coming to light so that they could provide any support required.
- To prioritise the safety of future victims, a warning should have been given by the community about the perpetrator, highlighting any known methods of operating. The community should also have considered what if any involvement it was possible for the perpetrator to have within the community which would not endanger the safety of wo/men in the organisation and communicated any limits, barriers or conditions directly to the perpetrator.
- In examining the wider situation on being aware that the community has played host to a sexual assault, consideration should have been given to what messages the community is disseminating on womens rights and sexual autonomy as well as what can be done in future to ensure that the culture of the organisation is not one in which perpetrators feel able to commit sexual offenses against other members.
It is not just the SWP who has had a problem with sexual preditors in their midst. As noted before, issues of misogyny and the minimisation of sexual assault has infected a large number of left wing groups. One example of pro-active handling has been provided by the Angry Women of Liverpool in the case of Paul Cunliffe – which although cannot claim to ensure perfect safety for women, goes some way to warn women of the threat that he poses.
Yet the Socialist Workers Party and its associated organisation Unite Against Fascism appear determined to protect the preditor in this instance, going so far to send him as part of an anti-fascist delegation to Athens and boasting of him speaking from a platform at it afterwards. We have quite enough problems in Greece without importing new ones, and sending a known sexual predator to a country where people are less likely to be aware of the risks that he poses, implying – by giving him a platform on a prominent event – that he is a respected member of the antifa community in the UK is completely unacceptable. Fascism is an ideology which is misogynist as well as racist and UAF would do well to remember that.