Misogyny under the banner of Trotskyism

by Karin Hilpisch, 30th December 2022

In this article, I’m going to take a critical look at some commentaries on the #MeToo campaign, issued by four Trotskyist groups, which I think exemplarily reveal what in my perception constitutes paradigmatic misogyny. The latter expression I understand to mean the practice of routinely downplaying, or airbrushing away, the reality of sexism, the name by which women’s oppression goes today.

My choice of the publications scrutinized here is an exemplary one, by which I aim to demonstrate what in my view is problematic and ought to change. I hope thereby to contribute to raising awareness and encouraging comradely discussion.

What is oppression?

I understand oppression to mean all forms of personal, institutional, or structural power imbalance in social relations which the superior part benefits from by harming the inferior part. All forms of oppression involve limited access to production and in this way affect those classes which are existentially dependent on access to production, i.e., the working class and petty bourgeoisie or sections thereof. The oppressor and ultimate beneficiary is the class which rules production, i.e., the bourgeoisie.

Generated at the level of the economic base through super-exploitation, sexism and racism constitute power relations between classes but also within classes; they are inner-class as well as intra-class forms of special oppression (previously referred to as specific oppression).

Since Marxists oppose all oppression, we must not be indifferent toward sexism or racism, whether those affected are members of the working class or the petty bourgeoisie. Nor should Marxists sweepingly reject petty-bourgeois anti-sexist or anti-racist policies but support them critically, in my view, without in the least aiming at class collaboration.

“We couldn’t care less”: not a Marxist position

Extensive coverage of allegations of sexualized victimization of women at the hands of men has been provided by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), the organ of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), over the past 5 years. I cannot claim familiarity with more than roughly a dozen WSWS articles on the topic of #MeToo and am not in the position to comment on the veracity of all of the empirical or legal claims made in them. But I nonetheless aim to show that those claims are entirely a consequence, not a condition, of a programmatic attitude toward sexism, in general, and its sexualized forms, in particular, manifesting illustratively in the following statement : “Did [Governor] Cuomo …’grab the butt’ of State Entity Employee #1? We have no idea and couldn’t care less.” (1)

There is no need to speculate about whether the ICFI believes such comments to be appropriate due to the fact that the women they refer to are not salesclerks, nurses, or factory workers but members of a reactionary political class or otherwise serve it in their professional functions. While from a Marxist perspective, being opposed to sexism and racism depending on the class affiliation of those affected would be an incoherent position, there is no reason to suspect the ICFI guilty of such incoherence.

What I perceive to ideologically underlie all of the WSWS’s coverage of #MeToo becomes plainly obvious by their unqualified endorsement of a comment published in the French newspaper Le Monde in January 2018, which reframes sexualized harassment as men’s making legitimate use of the “liberty to inconvenience people, which is indispensable to sexual liberty.” (2)

Having zero tolerance for such liberties is seen as expressive of the “semi-puritanical” attitude of “semi-Victorian moralisers.” (3)

Along similar lines, the International Communist League (ICL) endorses the Le Monde comment’s objecting to “puritanism” and “neo-Victorianism,” and criticizes “an identity-politics orgy of misdirected moral energies.” (4)

The Internationalist Group/League for the Fourth International (IG) likewise blames “puritanical ideas” for #MeToo’s opposing men’s liberty to inconvenience women.  (5)

The difference between sex and sexualized victimization

Frank Brenner, co-editor of the Trotskyist website “Permanent Revolution” has provided a trenchant and illuminating critique of the ICFI’s coverage of #MeToo. (6)

He notes,

“From the get-go this gets off on the wrong foot: #MeToo isn’t focused on sex but on sexual abuse, a rather crucial distinction.” (7)

One might be inclined to take Brenner’s point to be the premise of all Marxist criticism of #MeToo. But the ICFI is not the only Trotskyist group displaying some difficulty with making the distinction between sex and sexualized victimization. Things get off on the wrong foot for the ICL too when they claim, “The #MeToo campaign is about sex” (ibid.).

International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) comments,

 “The #MeToo campaign, which aims to empower women, focuses on the sexual indignities and criminal assaults we have suffered. But this can play easily into the hands of those who want to deny us sexual agency and who would present sexual activity as a danger to women.” (8)

How, one is left wondering, can denouncing criminal assaults on women, i.e., deeds which violate women’s sexual agency, play into the hands of those who deny women’s sexual agency? 

IG points out the “qualitative discontinuity” (ibid.) between consensual sex and rape but their definition of the latter is not really suited to keep both acts conceptually apart.

“Rape … involves an act, the circumstances of which determine whether it is a crime or voluntary sexual intercourse. Therefore, ambiguities about consensuality do and must occur.” (ibid).

This is like saying, intentionally poisoning someone involves an act, say, giving someone an injection, the circumstances of which determine whether it’s a crime or medical treatment. 

The absence of consent is constitutive, i.e., an essential determinant, of the act in question, not a qualifying circumstance. It is what makes rape what it is, conceptually, and thereby differentiates it from having sex as a radically separate and distinct kind of act.

I don’t disagree with IG when they observe that,

“sex is really confusing, and sex is also full of contradictions,” and that in “the reality of sex .. there is often plenty of uncertainty and hesitation and ambiguity” (ibid.).

But IG’s idea that the contradictions, uncertainty, and ambiguity of having sex is something “feminists cannot account for” (ibid.) when running campaigns against sex offenders springs from the conceptual confusion outlined above about the difference between determinant and circumstance of an act. Such confusion is not of intellectual but of ideological origin and serves the political function of supporting the social bias in favour of sex offenders.

IG’s claim that “rape is the most easily fabricated of felonies” (ibid.) flys in the face of the fact that, as Brenner points out, rape is a greatly under-reported crime (9),a state of affairs attributable, not to ambiguous circumstances, but to a justice system that is “an INjustice system for a huge number of women who are victims of sexual assault” (10) and to the stigma attached to sexualized victimization.

ICL claims,

“The guiding principle in any sexual encounter should be effective consent, that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference” (ibid.)

While I agree that effective consent to sexual activity is to be considered independent of gender or sexual preference, I don’t think it is possible regardless of age. There may be legitimate disagreement over what the age of consent should be. But even though no age of consent is sufficient to prevent sexualized exploitation of children, giving up on the very concept of a minimum age at which a person can be considered competent to consent to sexual activity with an adult blurs the line between sex and sexualized exploitation.

Whatever the circumstances of the case of Roman Polanski, IG’s framing it as his having had “consensual sex with an experienced 13- year-old girl” (ibid.) is problematic because the notion of being “sexually experienced” can have no legitimate application to a 13 year old. Children’s displaying sexualized behaviour is typically induced by prior abuse and not to be mistaken as the competence to consent to sex.

Trivial or trivialization?

In its steadfast defence of men’s “liberty to inconvenience” women, the ICFI misses no opportunity to euphemize groping and other forms of unwelcome advances as “sexual misconduct” and “micro-aggressions” and to dismiss it altogether as “banality,” “absurdly trivial,” etc. (11)

Along the same lines, ICL sees men being targeted for “sexual impropriety, no matter how trivial” (ibid.) and is concerned that the “hype over ‘inappropriate’ peccadilloes minimizes the terror of rape and trivializes sexual abuse” (ibid.). IG argues that “equating a bad date with sexual assault trivializes sexual assault” (ibid.)

Neither ICL nor IG specify the acts they consider trivial but it may be assumed that they are referring to unwanted touching, which according to the current standards of public discourse constitutes harassment, something qualitatively different from mere misconduct or impropriety. In terms of its moral perniciousness, I consider sexualized harassment to be of the same severity as racist slurs.  I can’t imagine that it would occur to anyone identifying as Marxist to characterize a racist slur as mere misconduct or impropriety. 

That a racist slur is an act less severe than racist physical assault does not imply it’s trivial. That groping is an act less severe than rape does not imply it’s trivial, either. To characterize sexualized harassment as a “bad date,” “peccadillos” or “piggish sexual follies” constitutes a trivialization of the kind of act in question. Apart from this being objectionable in and of itself, trivializing less severe forms of sexualized victimization paves perpetrators the way to more severe forms.

Paradigmatic victim-blaming

While I always discuss feminism, i.e., the anti-sexism of the victims of sexism, in analogy to anti-racism, it needs to be acknowledged that there exists a relevant difference between racist and the sexualized forms of oppression: the latter, unlike the former, takes place, first and foremost, in institutions of mystified power imbalance, i.e., gender relations and the family. As a result, the oppression is obfuscated, rendered invisible, which manifests as paradigmatic victim-blaming, i.e., systemic invalidation, stigmatization. Stigmatization typically takes the form of psycho-pathologizing: survivors are being portrayed as mentally disturbed, a concept imbued with the idea of a person’s compromised moral judgment.

As socialist feminist Steph Lacey correctly notes,

“Historically, psychiatry has been used to convince the court, and the world, that abused women are crazy. It’s been used to label them, discredit them, and shame them. These aren’t objective diagnoses, they’re political, tactical and deliberate.” (12)

Female accusers of male sex offenders are being characterized as hysteric, unstable, unhinged in WSWS articles. (13) Rape allegations in the context of #MeToo are being dismissed on the ground, among other things, of the victims’ continued contact with the perpetrators prior to joining the campaign. Brenner is right to have a different take on this. As he notes, 

 “If the WSWS paid any attention to this issue, they would know that it is common for victims of sexual abuse to stay silent for long periods of time, especially if the experience was traumatic … and/or they feel their stories won’t be believed.” (14)

Those who care to know may also be aware of the victim-perpetrator psychodynamic of conditioned traumatic bonding.

In the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s attempted rape of a black female hotel employee, a district attorney investigator is quoted approvingly as suggesting that reporting the assault was “another opportunity for her to extract money from somewhere. I would say she was a con artist.” (15)

The WSWS argues that groping is to be expected while practicing “a supremely physical art” (16) such as ballet, and that it is “paradoxical” for actresses who partake in media productions about “sexuality, promiscuity and libidinous behavior” (17) to complain about being subjected to groping in their off-stage life.

All of this is suited to create the impression that when it comes to sexualized forms of sexism — the very name of which appears only in quote marks in the WSWS (18) — we are dealing with a pseudo-problem, invented by those who benefit from doing so in some way, usually economically, or who lack sufficient moral judgment.

That the mass media turn cases of sex offences affecting women with celebrity status into sex scandals, instrumentalizing them for reactionary purposes, such as distracting from other political issues, does not change the justice system’s being systemically biased in favor of those accused of sex offences, which the WSWS, on the basis of selective data, sees disproven as a “myth.” (19)

“#MeToo witch hunt” — who is being hunted?

Against the backdrop of what has been outlined above, there is simply no social context for IG’s concern about the “idea.. that you not only have to believe women’s accusations, but you have to believe that if a woman calls something rape, or if she calls something sexual assault, whatever she says it is, that is what it is, as a principle, period. This sets the conditions for a witch hunt, and one that can use puritanical ideas, and be launched against men in general” (ibid.)

But characteristic of all oppression is that the oppressed have precisely no power of definition. The same projected inversion of reality applies, to an even larger extent, to the WSWS which has used the word witch hunt, occasionally the expression “sexual witch hunt,” as a leitmotif throughout a series of articles that one could be forgiven for thinking amounts to a journalistic anti-#MeToo crusade.

The bitter irony here, lost on all those who avail themselves of this metaphor to characterize #MeToo, is that it turns the reality of power relations on its head. The clerical inquisition persecuted powerless women suspected or denounced to be witches. Men or women who seek to see those being held to account who, taking advantage of superior power positions, have harmed them, are not witch hunters.

When criminal law suits are being filed, it goes without saying that due process must be observed.

#MeToo:not the resurgent Ku Klux Clan

All the Trotskyist groups referenced here see an analogy between #MeToo and the lynch law targeting black men accused of molesting or raping white women. Concretely, they see people like former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, convicted of crimes hardly anyone other than the ICFI is in serious doubt about, in a situation similar to that of the poor black working class man in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) who gets falsely accused of raping a white woman he worked for, and narrowly escapes lynching only thanks to the courage of his lawyer, Atticus Finch, who steps between him and the lynch mob. (20)

I consider seeing such an analogy as indicative of not being in contact with social and political reality. The persecution of black men for alleged sex offences against white women is part and parcel of racist oppression. By contrast, the prosecution of white men (certainly the majority of #MeToo targets) accused of such offences against  (white or black) women has nothing whatsoever to do with oppression; it is, on the contrary, an attempt, however insufficient, at fighting one form of it, i.e., sexism.

Sexualized oppression, ‘consensually’ practiced

In the forms of pornography and prostitution, institutionalized misogyny occurs as commodification (and hence commercialization) of sexuality.

Sexualized oppression exists not only in the context of lacking consent; some of its forms are practised ‘consensually’. They occur as institutionalized commodification (and hence commercialization) of sexuality in the forms of pornography and prostitution. 

“We also fight laws and prohibitions against ‘crimes without victims’ such as ‘pornography,’ gambling and drugs.” (21)

It remains unclear why in the original text, pornography is put in quote marks by IG; in any event, lumping it in with gambling and drugs insinuates  that the acts in question are morally of the same kind. I agree that gambling and taking drugs do not involve a victim-perpetrator relation, but producing and consuming pornographic material constitutes a form of sexualized exploitation, in my view, whether legal or not.  I’m not referring to the pornographically performing person as the producer or consumer.

With regard to sexualized exploitation in the form of prostitution, being opposed to it is not a contradiction to supporting the right of prostitutes to unionize.

IG rightly defends women featured in Playboy against puritanical sexual morals. However, even though women’s posing nude in men’s magazines is not the same as prostitution, as IG is right to note, and does not equal pornography, either, in all three cases we are nonetheless dealing with the commodification of women’s sexuality, and feminists’ objecting to this has nothing to do with puritanism. IG rightly criticizes dress codes for women, such as having to wear the chador, a full-body length cloak, in public spaces due to the idea that women’s bodies are a source of sin. But commodified female nudity is not an antidote to the chador or the burka; both are complementary sides of the same coin of women’s oppression in that both are expressive of the sexualization of women’s bodies.

I see stereotyping female human beings on the basis of sex, which goes by the name of femininity, as analogous to race-base stereotypes, i.e., the racialization of non-white people. Stereotyping erases a human being’s inner depth, complexity, and individuality, from which our sense of others’ full humanity is inseparable.  

The commodification of the female human body has no more in common with any great piece of art portraying female nudity than does the “Black and White Minstrel Show” with Laurence Olivier’s playing Othello.

Moral philosopher Raimond Gaita (22) reflects on “[t]he kind of impossibility we encounter when we realise that we cannot cast faces that look like the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ face to play Othello, because it is unintelligible that such a face could express the necessary depth of feeling…” He notes that it is impossible “to see dignity in faces that had all looked alike to us, to see the full range of human expressiveness in them …”

It is, I think, similarly impossible to see in the faces of women publicly portrayed as exchangeable sex objects — a mere fetish — the full range of human expressiveness and the dignity that could give the onlooker a sense that they are being wronged by being so portrayed. 

Conclusion

The systemic sexualized victimization of women grows out of the superstructural power imbalance between women and men, based on unequal access to production.

Marxist feminists agree with their comrades that the struggle for women’s liberation is inextricably bound up with the struggle for socialism. Opposing sexism and racism without opposing capitalism is reformist but reformist campaigns can be used by revolutionaries to make apparent the link between (special) oppression and (super-)exploitation.

I think Brenner is right when he observes that while it’s necessary for Marxists to resist separating women’s issues from class issues, to ignore a widespread social reality like sexualized victimization of women cedes the issue to petty bourgeois feminism and serves to strengthen identity politics rather than undermine it. (23)

References

(1) WSWS: The sordid effort to oust New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

(2) WSWS: French artists rebuff #MeToo witch-hunt

(3) WSWS: UK choreographer Liam Scarlett’s suicide after #MeToo sexual misconduct allegations

(4) International Communist League:Sex, Scandals and Power

(All quotes pertaining to the ICL are taken from this article.)

(5) Internationalist Group/League for the Fourth International:

Democratic Party Feminism and the “#MeToo Movement”

(All quotes pertaining to IG except (21) are taken from this article.)

(6) Permanent Revolution (PR):

Willful blindness on sexual abuse;

A postscript: The Sexual Inequality Party;

The Sexual Inequality Party – Continued

(7) PR: Willful blindness …

(8) International Bolshevik Tendency:

Marxism, Feminism and #MeToo

(9) PR: A postscript …

(10) Ibid.

(11) WSWS: Top New York Democrats call for resignation of Governor Cuomo in#MeToo witch-hunt;

HBO’s docuseries Allen v. Farrow: A shameful, vindictive, McCarthyite attack on filmmaker Woody Allen

(12) ROSA International Socialist Feminists:  Vilification of Amber Heard should be a concern of all who oppose gender-based violence

(13) WSWS: New York state governor Andrew Cuomo resigns in sex scandal; The suicide of Jill Messick: #MeToo campaign claims a victim;  HBO’s docuseries Allen v. Farrow …;

(14) PR: Willful blindness…

(15)WSWS: Room 2806: The Accusation—Digging up the discredited sexual assault case against French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn

(16) WSWS:UK choreographer Liam Scarlett’s suicide…

(17) WSWS: Actor Chris Noth fired from The Equalizer television series amid sexual assault claims

(18)WSWS: The Australian Labor government and the “sexism” debate

(19) WSWS: Quebec’s #MeToo movement joins government in attacking the presumption of innocence

(20) WSWS: The #MeToo campaign versus the presumption of innocence

(21) “In Defense of Debora” in: The Internationalist No 7, April-May 1999

(22) Raimond Gaita: A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice (2002)

(23) PR: Willful blindness…

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