[This could probably go without saying, but for good measure: TRIGGER WARNING!]
Several months ago, I learned that a comrade and friend was raped by Seth Miller, a member of the Progressive Labor Party. I was shocked to hear, but as glad as one can be in this situation that a group of activists and friends were standing up with her and charging PL to hold Miller accountable. At the same time, because of my own history of grievances with PL and its members, I worried that this demand would fall on deaf ears. Initially, several members of PL seemed to take it seriously–they promised to bring it to the leadership and see to it that there was justice. But over time, it became clear that PL as an organization, from the senior leadership to these members who originally promised to help, were doing everything in their power to not bring Miller to accountability but rather to shield him, justify his actions, and attack his accuser. With communists like these, who needs capitalists?!
This is all the more troubling because I know some of these members who are defending Miller. It should be clear enough to anyone with half a sense of decency, much less feminist or leftist politics, to understand that telling a rape survivor that what she suffered wasn’t rape, that it’s just “gossip,” that the attacker is too important to the movement to be kicked out creates an environment where rape is excused ahead of time–where it is made clear that nothing will be done to prevent members from raping others, and that nothing will be done to punish them. But what is less obvious, but just as present, is the culture of rape within PL (and, indeed, many other leftist organizations and circles) that enabled Miller to rape my friend and, likely, other women. Unless PL takes an active stand against rape and rapists, one can only assume that their vision of revolutionary utopia is one in which women have little control over their own bodies, where party members can terrorize others with no consequence.
Shortly after the first public statement was released about Miller and PL’s coverup, I was asked to write something about PL and my experiences with them and their members at UC Irvine. Aside from recounting the events with broad strokes and offering an elementary analysis, as I’ve done above, I have little more to contribute in those areas, which others have written extensively and beautifully about already. And, as a man who no longer lives in Southern California, nothing I could write can or should equal what the women (and male allies) actively organizing against Miller and PL have already written and will continue to write. What I hope to contribute is additional history of PL’s culture of rape and misogyny and some personal experiences relative to the culture and defense of rape and sexual assault in activist circles, and social circles more broadly. In what follows, I don’t name names. As much as it is about these individuals and their actions, it is also about something much larger; it may be clear to some who I am referring to, but I don’t want their individual personalities to draw from the larger issue of sexual assault in our communities.
PL, Behind the Curtains
I came to UC Irvine several years ago as a grad student, after spending all four years of my undergraduate career involved with various activist groups and primarily organizing around workers’ rights issues and international solidarity. Searching for a continuation of this work, I sought to get involved with the only group at UCI interested in workers’ rights, and, in reality, the only group that was radical or organizing. What I found, I soon discovered, was not at all what I was looking for.
The group was dominated by older men, primarily grad students (including several in my department); but the gendered power dynamics were addressed by pushing women into public, formal leadership positions. As one could expect, this resulted in a cloaked power structure, where the men made decisions, while the women would face the responsibility for those decisions. Additionally, as exists in many (all?) other groups, there was a gendered division of labor: men take part in the “intellectual” work and claim publicity (writing, speaking at rallies, choosing which films to see and what articles or books to read in discussion groups), while women took on more rote work while staying in the shadows (working with the administration, outreach to other groups, making sure everyone does what they promised to).
But merely a gendered hierarchy and division of labor do not equate a rape culture. That’s where a lot of the interpersonal relationships come in. One of my strongest recollections from my short time in that group was an incident of one of the male leaders slut-shaming the women when they wanted to go out dancing one weekend. There was much more wrapped up with this incident than just inferring that these women were promiscuous because of an association of women going dancing together where there would be men, taking a paternalistic, Austen-esque view that women needed to be protected and chaste. What this was about, fundamentally, was controlling the bodies of women in the group. Whether it was understood by them as such, the men didn’t really want the women to mix with outsiders, much less outside men. By attempting to attack and undermine their sexuality, the men sought to control women’s sexuality. Men also used relationships with women in the group to control how they voted on things or carried out actions for or within the group. Men also used relationships with women outside the group in order to recruit them.
Along these lines, there were a number of actions I witnessed, designed to isolate group members from other social structures, so that they would be reliant on the group, and especially the leadership, for socializing. Frequent group dinners would be expected of any student club to build camaraderie among members, but this group went further, such that the group itself was the encapsulation of its members’ social lives.
Of course, as I discovered, the group was little more than a front for PL. The two oldest men in the group, who largely ran the group, were members of PL. Let’s call them “D” and “F”. D was a high-level leader in PL, while F was only really associated with PL at the time but is now more active. Most of the decisions of the group, while voted on at meetings, were either decided ahead of time by D and F and their allies, or vetoed afterwards. In one case, after I proposed and took on the responsibility for a film screening, I was told just a few days before that “they” decided to cancel it; telling me was more of an afterthought. But this is to say that the mechanisms of power and control didn’t exist isolated within that group; in reality, the actions of men in the group, especially D and F, were intended to make sure the group’s decisions were in line with PL’s, and to screen and recruit students to PL.
There were actually instances in which student activists who didn’t toe the PL line within the group were forcibly purged. One such student was a freshman my first year of grad school, and, I thought, had a tremendous natural potential for organizing. Unlike others in the group, especially D and F, she came from a poor family, and was working in addition to going to school; as a result of this background, she had a rapport with the workers that no one else could match. Despite this potential, which everyone acknowledged, she (actually her relationship with the workers) was seen as a resource to be exploited, and there was little effort to nurture and mentor her as an organizer, and even her efforts to seek this experience as opposed by some in the group. She ended up dating a campus groundskeeper (which was also, similarly, exploited), but when they broke up following her discovery that he was cheating, other members of the group (especially D and F) continued to maintain a relationship with him rather than her. They would invite him to group functions that were kept secret from her — despite her still being active in the group — and she actually found out that, while they were dating, D and F and others would hang out with him and his other girlfriend. Eventually, after the break-up, she was pulled aside by F and one of his other male allies after a meeting, and told that she was being kicked out of the group in a way that was, at a minimum, unintentionally threatening, violent, and patriarchal. The two of them told other group members who weren’t part of PL or the inner circle that she chose to leave.
Because the group was focused on campus workers, it’s also important to examine the group’s (and PL’s) intentions with those workers and their unions. In retrospect, most of the group’s interactions with workers were dictated by an interest in developing a relationship of dependency. A main reason why the film screening mentioned above was canceled was that the film, and my planned discussion afterward, emphasized worker agency and a vision of unions of, by, and for workers — that is, a union not controlled by bureaucratic leadership or an outside political party. The group often held meetings and events only for workers, and it was really a one-way flow of knowledge. The workers were to be evangelized into communism and recruited for PL if they passed some litmus test; it was not believed that student activists could learn from workers. If anything, workers’ experiences were cannibalized and forced into the PL narrative.
Many of the workers felt uncomfortable with this political proselytization, and those few who actually attended PL meeting were put off and didn’t go back. F would often take the role of speaking for workers, and managed to get himself onto the bargaining committee of one group of workers, where he dictated their strategy and decisions, and even turned the committee against the union that was representing them, during bargaining. Thus, and ignoring many other reaffirming examples, the group’s interest in workers’ rights did not translate into direct action in solidarity with workers (a la USAS or other groups), but was only something to be leveraged in order to trick workers into feeling dependent on students, with dreams of a power/party structure such that PL, viz. D and F and other student activists, would be at the top of the pyramid, with workers as their foot soldiers at the bottom.
Obviously, the workers never fell for it, and in many cases used D and F and the student group to get what they want; they were smarter than the student group gave them credit for. And, ultimately, it’s of no surprise that this should happen, because there is little incentive to join a political party unless you have come to believe the dogma or have a high-level position.
It’s More Than a Women’s Problem
While PL is marked as a target here, their treatment of Miller is just the most recent occurrence of a repeating phenomenon on the left. What I’ve outlined as my observations with this PL front group at UCI illustrates the mechanisms of hierarchy and patriarchy that allow a rape culture to form within organizations and communities. This culture makes it such that when one member is injured by another, whether by sexual assault or other means, there is an economizing that is done by the leadership, to determine which of the two members is more valuable. If the rapist, as in the case of Miller, is found to be of value to the organization, then that person is kept while the survivor/victim is purged. This goes far past simply blaming the victim, to treating the victim as a cancer that needs to be excised, rather than holding the perpetrator accountable. Or, the survivor may become convinced that it’s better to just stay quiet, because speaking up would mean more attacks against her (accusations of lying, etc) and removal from the space and therefore from her social circle. Within these structures, it is often preferable to pretend the attack didn’t occur. The rape-supporting structures within many of these organizations and communities resembles those of caricatured college fraternities; however, because these groups claim to be fighting against the very thing they are perpetrating, avenues for recourse and accountability may be even more tenuous and frightening than they are in the rest of society.
As few of my friends know, I unfortunately have first-hand experience with how these structures can work (albeit outside of leftist circles). I apologize for how this information is being conveyed–it is something I wish could have been dealt with properly, on its own, and I don’t mean to detract from what PL and Miller have done. It is something that has, for a long time, been difficult for me to come to terms with, but I decided I need to share in order to help others understand what is happening now.
When I was about 15, I was sexually assaulted. I was molested by a peer during a Boy Scouts camping trip, while I was in my tent. What was most difficult was that I was not alone in my tent, but that I was sharing it, at the time, with 4 other friends. And they watched, laughing, as it happened. Some of them were also classmates, while the rest I only knew through the Scout troop. The way that I internalized this all, as I assume anyone else would, was that I believed it was my fault, I convinced myself that this wasn’t sexual assault but a joke. I was afraid to speak out about it because it was my friends, because I was ashamed, and, most importantly, because I had no other social or support structure to fall back on. To cope with my inability to address what happened to me in any meaningful way, I blocked it out of my memory for 5 years, until it painfully came back and since hasn’t left.
Still, women are by and far much more likely than men to be targeted for sexual assault or rape. But it does happen to men, and rather than intending to make this, yet again, just about men, by recognizing that it doesn’t just happen to women, it’s easier to understand that sexual assault affects everyone, and that the burden of fighting sexual assault in our communities does not fall only on women. It is important also to recognize that sexual assault is not exclusive to hetero communities.
What I have come to understand from that experience, and what I have seen too many times since, primarily within activist groups, is how sexual assault comes to be seen as permissible: how perpetrators think that it’s ok or that they won’t be punished; how it’s excused, ignored, or reinforced by others in the group; and the psychology of victimhood and roadblocks to even seeking justice or accountability.
We Need to Kill the Monster Now, Not Later
What needs to be done would take too long to describe here in full, and has already been done articulately in too many other places to list.
In short, we need to fight patriarchy and sexual assault right now, not after the revolution. We need to examine our communities and our own behavior to see those aspects that contribute to a culture of rape and sexual assault. We need to make sure that sexual assault is discouraged, not permitted, and take preventative action rather than waiting until the unspeakable happens in our community. We also need to make sure that our communities practice real processes for accountability and justice — this means the right to confront one’s attacker, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be included in any accountability process (none of which were respected by PL). This also means that, if the attacker is not cooperative, not willing to meet the reasonable terms of the person they attacked, etc., that person needs to be removed from the community, forcibly if necessary. They don’t need a drinking buddy or to write self-critical reflection papers — they are a danger to the community, just as Seth Miller still is, and need to be prevented from attacking anyone else, by whatever means are deemed necessary by those who they endanger.
Anything short of this is counter-revolutionary, and demands immediate consequences.