Patriarchy on the Radical Left, part 1: struggling to be on the same side

CONTENT WARNING: this article discusses topics that can often be difficult including sexual and relationship abuse, suicide, and addiction.

KYRA GILLIES has been involved in the radical left in her city and country for five years. She is a woman/genderfluid survivor of multiple intimate partner rapes from men. The most recent being from a man who is a member of the International Socialist Organisation. Passionate about our planetary health the author has been involved in Students for Environmental Action, supported School Strike for Climate and is currently involved with Environmental Justice Ōtepoti. They have been involved in anti-violence and alternative approaches to prisons as a founding member of Students Against Sexual Violence and a former member of People Against Prisons Aotearoa. They have volunteered for LGBT youth organisation InsideOUT and supported Dunedin Pride Month as an MC and poet for the Pride Poetry Night. They have been involved with the International Socialist Organisation Dunedin branch for more than 2 years, attending meetings, study groups and giving a public talk on anti-capitalist feminism, though never joined the organisation formally due to concerns about a culture of (white) male dominance and sexism. They are currently part of the Tauiwi mō Matike Mai Aotearoa kaupapa.

Fightback is pleased to published Kyra’s thoughts on this subject, which are very close (though perhaps identical) to our own on the problem of macho or patriarchal behaviours on the activist Left. This is the first in a two-part series of articles from Kyra; the second will be published on the Fightback website next Monday.

Men who think they don’t have anything else to learn [are] very dangerous men.

Jennai Bundock1 2015

We believe in the need for a transformation of men…that means a male revolutionary or socialist has the responsibility to liberate themselves from patriarchy… [to] study and analyse how patriarchy is reproduced in their personality and try to overcome it.

Kurdish Women’s Movement2 2018

We dare you to own up to the damage you have caused, and then to actually change. We dare you to call other men out and to figure out how to prevent patriarchal behaviors and dynamics. We dare you to participate in feminist class struggle.

Barucha Peller3 2013

We believe in your humanity, against all the evidence4

Andrea Dworkin 1983

Being comrades means being on the same side5. With so much sexual abuse perpetrated by men on left, we are not yet on the same side.

good looks good person

I can’t tell you how much I blame Disney. The Disney films I ingested in my childhood made me equate good looks with being a good person. They directed me to seek out conventionally attractive men for relationships. I’m trying to figure out how to pay attention to other traits.

I dated this guy who was good looking, like Prince Eric from the Little Mermaid, Aladdin kind of good looking. Nice dark hair, nice skin. Like many leftist men, he had that kind of Che Guevara military style. I thought he was cute. He was in a socialist organisation, involved in a local union. He smiled and laughed a lot. He was funny. I liked that he cared about workers, the cause, y’know. I asked him out. We went on a couple dates, it was nice. He complimented me a lot. Said that he thought I was beautiful.

After a while I realised that all the compliments were on my looks, my body. (Maybe Disney had got to him too). You’re beautiful, you’re sexy. Then more specific. I like the way your stomach looks. You have a nice ass.

Eventually I started to feel uncomfortable. Do you like anything else about me? Like other qualities: my intelligence or passion, qualities that aren’t looks. Looks aren’t an achievement, it’s just a lottery of birth. It doesn’t mean anything. ‘But you are beautiful,’ he’d say. I know but I don’t care.

flat stomach

You have to understand I’ve spent more than half my life being terrified of being anything other than skinny. I’ve cycled through binge eating and skipping meals. I’ve been threatened that one day my metabolism will catch up on me and I should ‘be careful’ I don’t get fat. I meet the conventional standards of beauty when it comes to size, sure, but my god it hasn’t been enjoyable, or healthy. I don’t want to be congratulated for it. I’ve visited friends in hospital who have nearly died from anorexia. Answered their phone calls while they’re delirious, starved. A flat stomach is not comforting; neither is you affirming it.

We’d have political discussions often, he’d tell me that he thought that women’s oppression is purely reducible to economics. As if women’s oppression is ‘out there’ somewhere. Not right here, right now, between us two in bed while I’m in my underwear being looked at like all that matters is that my stomach is flat. So sexy.

you find out gradually

I started going out with him. As the months went on I discovered progressively how much of an addiction problem he had. Mostly weed and alcohol. He was always on something: coffee, his phone, video games. Apart from me and the guys at the almost exclusively men’s socialist group, he didn’t really have any friends or support people in his life.

I found out he’d been suicidal, was depressed, had anxiety. He didn’t really give a shit about himself, had no sense of trying to take care of himself. It was like he was trying to kill himself, but slowly. If I was going be going out with him then I was going to watch him do it. But, I believed in transformation, I thought he did too. He claimed to be a revolutionary, he wanted to change society, just not himself. Personal transformation is not always neoliberal bullshit. Jordan Peterson thinks people should tidy their room, focus on themselves, before trying to change the world. I think we can try and do both at the same time. We don’t have to choose between the individual and the collective, we need to integrate them both as a balanced whole. Trust a bisexual to answer both when given two options.

I believed in supporting people, not throwing people away. So I poured love and care into him. I’d try get him into eating nice meals with me, get him to go outside, get fresh air, go for a walk. After months and months, I started to get burnt out and frustrated. I was serving people at work. I would finish a shift and feel like I was serving him too. Burning the candle at both ends, I was exhausted. I’d spent my whole girlhood seeing my mother exist in service to other people, mostly her man partner and her children. I’d taken that in and was self-imposing it. I think he expected me to care for him too. Fuss over him, dote on him.

We started fighting quite a bit. I didn’t like that he wasn’t present when we were spending time with each other, always on his phone. A few months in he started to be late and forgetful. He was on time to start with, but he could only keep that up for so long. I think he was smoking weed every day, but I’m not sure.

He would get jealous when I’d go to see friends of mine who were men.

all the men in the family are alcoholics

I was around him a couple times when he got really drunk. I told him how that affected me. It brought up my child hood trauma, how my dads an alcoholic. How I’ve been sexually abused by drunk men. He said ‘yeah, yeah, you know I care about you, it’s fine’. He made promises he couldn’t keep, that I never asked him to make. ‘I won’t drink tonight. Oh, but what if I drink a little, do you mind? Is that okay? I know I said I wouldn’t, but everyone else is drinking’. I’m not your fucking mother, I’m not your minder or your babysitter. You can do what you want and you obviously do. It’s up to me whether or not I want to stick around for it. I told you, your drinking makes me uncomfortable. You told me you’re an alcoholic, like your dad before you. Much like my dad and my grandfather before him. I’ve told you I don’t feel safe and you’ve made your choice.

I tried so hard for so long, in spite of the stress and exhaustion because I longed for a companion. I longed for a relationship of equality and mutuality. I wanted to believe you could grow. We could grow together. I wanted someone to love me. The absent-father-abandonment-issues set me up very well to be vulnerable to abuse. Longing for love, with low expectations.

I invited him out for dinner with my mum. Afterwards my mum said ‘he seems nice, but was he high during dinner?’ I said I dunno, yeah probably. I was always too scared to ask.

We had a big argument at a party. I was going to be staying at his house that night. He was drunk. I wanted to be by myself and go home. I told him I was going to go. He wouldn’t let me leave. He followed me to my car. He was yelling at me “have I mistreated you? have I abused you?” Dude, you’re yelling at me right now. Of course I don’t say that, I’m worried about ‘making’ him more angry.

body pain / getting sick

I got burnt out. I was exhausted from work and from him. I was seeing my friends a lot less, so tired and busy with him. Often he would tell me I was wrong or overreacting. I was getting cut off from my own perspective or any perspective other than his.

I started getting pain in my stomach and back. It hurt to stand. I couldn’t cook. I went to the doctors to get tests done. I went to the emergency room. I thought my appendix was going to burst. I had to take a lot of time off work. I didn’t know what was wrong. Irritable bowel syndrome? Fibromyalgia? The doctors don’t know.

We hadn’t had sex in a while. I think I missed it, but also felt like he would start to be frustrated with me, so felt pressure, to have sex with him soon.

I think it was the first time we were having sex since I’d been sick that I told him to stop during sex and he didn’t. He pushed me down and kept going. I said ‘no’ and ‘stop’ a couple times. I was in disbelief that he would ignore me like that. I’d been to SlutWalk and Take Back the Night, up until then I had thought the slogan ‘no means no’ was a little silly, like too obvious.

burying it in your head

When he ignored my no, I knew I couldn’t tell a friend or say it out loud, unless I was ready to break up with him. If I told a friend, they would be on my case to get out of the relationship. I was so embarrassed, unsure and gutted that he abused me, that I buried it in my head. I didn’t speak about. He acted like nothing had happened. I carried on, like I’d forgotten.

A couple weeks later, I was still recovering from being sick. Still feeling pressure to be this sexy, fun girlfriend, not wanting him to lose interest. We started having sex. I was trying really hard to be energetic and upbeat, even though I’d been exhausted for weeks. Sometimes during sex we would hit or choke each other. It would go both ways. I’d told him him multiple times. ‘I’m only into it or okay with that if you ask me first, or if I ask you to. I don’t always feel like it’.

So it’s pitch black, he’s on top of me. No warning, he starts hitting and choking me. I went into shock. I thought for a split second about saying no. But I remembered that he didn’t stop last time I said no, so I didn’t say anything. I was too scared he would ignore me again and then I’d really know he was assaulting me. I was too scared it would get worse. So I waited for it to be over.

I was completely spaced out once he stopped. I had disassociated so rapidly I was nauseous. I wanted him to not be there. For me to be in bed by myself. But I was scared trying to get him to leave would make it worse. So I rolled over and went to sleep with him beside me, too exhausted to do more.

If women’s oppression is purely economic, why do I feel unsafe in my own bed?

If women’s oppression is purely economic, why do I have more money than him but it still feels like he has more power?

tearfulness

I ran into a friend a couple times around the time of the two assaults. Each time I had either just been crying, or was about to cry. My friend said, ‘you really haven’t been okay lately’. I was like yeah, I haven’t, why is that? I’ve been crying so much.

I had suppressed both the assaults and was trying to go back to work.

Then, I remembered that tearfulness was an early sign or consequence of rape. I remembered how tearful I was the first time I was raped in high school. Oh shit, it’s this again. This inexplicable crying. It’s not inexplicable. I’ve been violated and it’s scattered my mind and body.

I knew many women who are raped often experience a second sexual assault. I knew that leftist men rape too. I knew that the most common place women experience violence is in their own home, in relationships with men. But I was still shocked. I’d spent 4 years processing the previous rape. I’d worked so hard to try to be okay, to trust, to have sex, to try another relationship. Here I was again.

telling people

We had the overlapping social circles. We knew people in socialist groups, environmental groups, unions. We’d gone to rallies and blockades together. We met during a strike. He knew I’d been raped before by another man I was in a relationship with. He knew because he knew I’d been involved in anti-sexual violence activism. He would talk to me about the sexual harassment and assault of his women colleagues where he worked, he was so upset and disgusted by it. His mother had had to flee an abusive relationship. He claimed to support women’s liberation. Interestingly, he’d only read from the canon of men. Just Marx, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky. I wondered if he thought women’s liberation was important, why it was such a low priority, why he never got around to studying it. But he did the dishes and he gave me head more than I gave him head so I told myself this was pretty good.

Telling people how he’d treated me seemed like an exhausting task. I worried about being accused of bitching or trashing him. I worried about him killing himself and me being blamed for that. I worried about being accused of attention seeking, that I was just me trying to make some feminist point.

help the healing

I’m not saying he’s a monster, or a totally bad person, or that he’s vastly different from other men. The problem is that he’s much the same. What he did was mundane and unfair. I want to not be the only one insisting on his healing and growth. Unlearning is harder than learning. Insist with me, that he work and be supported to never do that again. That is how you stop cycles of violence, intergenerational cycles. Give us women and genderqueer people healing; the comfort, the peace of mind and body to know another wound is not coming for us. Ostracism, condemnation, denunciation doesn’t do that, but it’s so much easier isn’t it? To say they’re terrible and we’re not like that. We’re not like them.

No. No more.

No more ‘but we’re nice guys’, ‘the good guys’ and ‘not like those guys’.

We insist, you men and all people of the left do the hard, necessary, work of healing and stopping violence. Supporting people in accountability, in finding alternative ways of dealing with pain, trauma and anger. Alternatives that don’t involve abuse, escapism, self destruction and addiction. Alternatives that involve social support, nature, arts, creativity, expression. Aren’t we meant to be revolutionaries? Revolutionaries are meant to be inventors, creators with big imaginations. We are trying to create other worlds.

spill over / we’re not separate

Self-destruction will eventually spill over and hurt other people. You can’t neglect and abuse yourself without eventually mistreating others, you just can’t. There is a reason why substance abuse is a risk factor for sexual violence perpetration. Are we ready to have a conversation about substance abuse problems in the radical left and its connections to sexual violence? We’d better be.

I thought bout telling his organisation. I knew many women and non binary people who have found the organisation to have an inhospitable macho environment. But I couldn’t be bothered. It seemed like a lot more harm and risk to me, while my health was already so poor.

So I broke up with him. I wouldn’t go to the socialist meetings every week anymore. I was trying to challenge the male dominance in the organisation, support other women’s engagement, try and form a feminist bloc. Get a foothold. If they want a men’s only, or male dominated group so badly they can have it. In the words of Shulamith Firestone “We have more important things to do than to try to get you to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you. . . . The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.6

People still added me to group chats and events that he was in. I weighed up, agonised, over if I should tell the people, that we were no longer together and why. I decided not to. I was worried about being accused of gossip. Not speaking about misogynistic violence because you’re worried they’ll dismiss you out of misogyny, the irony is not lost on me.

spare some solidarity?

I’m struggling to still be able to go and participate in ‘left’ meetings. It’s hard to talk about the environment and capitalism when you feel heartbroken, ashamed and dissociated. Like you just want to be hugged and not touched at the same time. Sometimes, I want to, when asked if I have an agenda item, put men’s violence against women on the agenda. Say: frankly, I am this close to not being able to come to meetings. I need extra support right now and here’s why and I know I’m not the only one. Before I can even participate, I have to do the basic recovery work for myself to be even slightly okay. It’s not fair and I need some help. I need some fucking solidarity. Is this the left or not? Is solidarity just a word or is it a practice? do you speak in catchy slogans? or do you show up and live and breathe the ethos of supporting one another?

never a side issue

Patriarchy, misogyny is not a side issue. It has never been a side issue. The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the United States collapsed because of a man raping a woman and it not being addressed properly7. The Socialist Workers Party in the United Kingdom had a similar collapse. The anarchist movement where I live has collapsed because of sexual violence, mostly by cisgender heterosexual men, mostly to women and genderqueer people. Fucking hell, when will you wake up and realise this is the centre. How we are treated, how we can relate to each other is the fucking centre. It cannot be secondary, or at the bottom of a list of priorities, it can’t come eventually after you’ve read Marx’s collected works. If we don’t have trust and respect, we have nothing. We have tried to trust, now you men of the left need to give us a fucking reason to.

No excuses. You’ve been abused by your parents? Me too. You have depression? Me too. You’re struggling with poverty? Been there. But do you know what I haven’t done? is sexually abused an intimate partner.

We can’t be comrades, if you abuse us. We’re not on the same side if you abuse us. We want to work together, but you’ve ruined it. Start unruining, start the reparations, the self-evaluation, the healing. Decades ago Andrea Dworkin invited men to go out and organise a truce. A 24 hour truce without rape8. Stillyou have not done it. We are waiting, we are waiting.

which side are you on, boys?

You fundraise for the bus drivers and the port workers. But you don’t fundraise for the Women’s Refuge or the Rape Crisis centres. We are waiting.

You come to the talks on capitalism and climate change, but not to the talks on feminism and class struggle. Still we are waiting.

You accuse us of identity politics because we have the audacity to want to live. To be respected, to live free from violence. You see yourself as a worker not a boss.

But whenever you laugh at us, dismiss us, abuse us. You are behaving exactly like that class you claim to hate so much.

You want to seize the means of production. We want to seize the means of reproduction. We want our bodies for ourselves. Autonomy. I thought that was a word that you stood for. We are waiting.

We are not vindictive. We are fucking heartbroken. You have no idea how much we want to be able to work together. But with your counterrevolutionary rape, you destroy our bonds. We can’t trust you. We can’t work together. You make us have to struggle within the struggle and it’s exhausting.

If you men ‘seize’ power without us, without more than half of the worlds people. it will be nothing more than a coup d’ètat among men9. I am sick of the great men. Sick of paternal authority. Sick of macho bullshit. Did you know caring can be revolutionary? You don’t have to be this big, strong, hard man all the time? And there’s often a fall out when you are.

men’s meetings

Is this what happens? Is the consequence of men meeting together weekly to discuss political issues, as if they are separate and outside of themselves? When they meet to discuss Palestine, Syria, the housing and climate crisis, but they won’t ask each other how they’re doing. Won’t talk about how they practically all have substance abuse problems. Won’t talk about why? Why is that? Is it because you’re depressed and anxious, suicidal? and why is that? Is it because you don’t have close friends? Your parents abused you? You’ve got intergenerational trauma from alcohol abuse and witnessing your mother being beaten? Do you ever talk about something other than what strike and picket line is coming up? (I’m not saying that’s not important).

Politics isn’t just outside of you. It’s in you. I know it’s hard to look at yourself, to sit with your thoughts and feelings. Politics can be an escape like any other. But weren’t you the ones who said revolution was never going to be easy? Weren’t you the ones talking about dialectical materialism. How we need to analyse the contradictions, the antagonisms and push. Enough of 1900’s Russia, can’t we analyse here, now, in this country, in this meeting, in this house, in this bedroom? It’s not for lack of contradictions, so why haven’t you analysed and disrupted it yet?

Perhaps you’re a reformist, not a revolutionary like you like to think. The non-feminist left is a patriarchal reform movement10, but we’re inviting you to join us.

try, care

Men urgently need to do care work. Feminism as a project has never been just about women doing work. Men need to care for themselves and each other; men need to learn how to care. Women know how to care because we’ve been taught, forced and expected to since we were young. Men need to provide emotional support to each other. To develop intimacy in their friendships. Actually check in on each other, so that women partners and friends of men aren’t the only one who knows he’s suicidal. Aren’t the only one that knows he’s addicted to substances, was abused as a kid. Is acting like he’s fine, this man who’s got it together. When he needs support far beyond what one person can give.

Self care and care for each other can be how men ensure they don’t put the work of care solely on to women. Men’s wellbeing is not women’s responsibility. We are willing to support you, that should be obvious, since we have been doing it for so long. But you need to have solidarity with each other, men support each other. You’re good at having solidarity in maintaining male supremacy, in supporting and covering up abuse, in making excuses for each other. Apply your solidarity towards emotionally supporting each other.

Most women I know are exhausted, much of that burn out is from you, men. I believe in mutual aid. It’s not just aid. That first word matters. Mutual. right now y’all are acting like bosses just taking our labour. Give.

a glimpse of the world we’re trying to get to

I have been part of starting a women’s group to develop our own confidence, consciousness and ability to work collectively, independent of men’s political organisations. Some men comrades have started a group for the transformation of men, for men to study, analyse and overcome patriarchy in themselves. We hope their initiative will be accountable to us and that we can guide and support this project.

I have come close to, but not lost faith.

I went to an amazing worker’s hui11 last year. When I was asked what was good about it, I said ‘they gave me my own room to sleep in and no one tried to sneak into my bed at night…The men cooked soup and did admin work, wiped tables, made tea for everyone. It was like another world.’

Another world is possible; I could have cried from relief.

Men of the left, you’re organisers aren’t you? Organise a truce.

Educate, agitate and organise against patriarchy.

Only then, can we be on the same side.


1 The Hidden Cost of Patriarchy vimeo.com/100087331

2 Introductory Speech by Kurdish Women’s Movement worldwomensconference.org/blog/2019/04/introductory-speech-by-the-kurdish-womens-movement-on-womens-liberation/?fbclid=IwAR1CQkqc_OlABjCUQcBto3N10159cmgkfCKypRpGOku2LfSWoh-awx5t8vE

3 Patriarchy in Radical Movements, and a Call to Men (unpublished)

4 I want a 24 truce during which there is no rape nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html

5 This definition of ‘comrades’ is taken from Jodi Dean’s book of the same name.

6 Susan Faludi, Death of a Revolutionary about Shulamith Firestone newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary

7 Radical Women, The meltdown of International Socialist Organization: How anti-feminism, racism and bureaucracy led to its demise 

radicalwomen.org/ISO%20demise.shtml?fbclid=IwAR2BmdVeG132deOercwl5YNVTQ1EX4XaA21jkqzhPgtoqJlyRfIYQOR94

8 Andrea Dworkin, ‘I want a 24 truce during which there is no rape’ nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html

9 Concept from Robin Morgan in the book Sisterhood is Powerful! (United States: Random House 1970)

10 Andrea Dworkin, Marx and Ghandi were liberals: feminism and the “radical” left http://archive.org/stream/Dworkin_Marx-Ghandi/Marx%20and%20Ghandi%20Were%20Liberals_djvu.txt

11 Thanks to the Health Sector Workers Network and Unions Otago for organising the hui.

If you found this article difficult and/or are struggling with similar issues, please consider talking with your whānau, friends and/or contacting: Lifeline, Depression Helpline, Women’s Refuge, Shine Helpline, HELP Support for Sexual Abuse Survivors, OCASA (formerly Rape Crisis), Safe to Talk Sexual Harm phone line, and/or the Alcohol/Drug Helpline.

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