Sexual violence is endemic in the United States, and the highest levels of our government are no exception. The current president and two sitting members of the Supreme Court have been credibly accused of a range of predatory sexual behavior, from workplace harassment to rape. Donald Trump was elected shortly after being exposed as an admitted sexual predator in the Access Hollywood tapes. The #MeToo movement, sparked by investigative reporting and built off of decades of feminist organizing, exposed the ubiquity of harassment and violence in the workplace, from the rarefied environments of the entertainment and media industries to the more prosaic stories ordinary women told on social media and in person in the fall of 2017. This November, voters chose between two rapists, one whom the Democratic establishment has castigated and the other whose victim they have chosen to quietly ignore. Many of #MeToo’s most prominent and vocal supporters turned a blind eye to Tara Reade’s accusations against Democratic president elect Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, to the detriment of anti-violence organizing in the United States.
We agree with many of the points laid out in our Democratic Socialists of America comrade Natalia Tylim’s article, “When Your Assaulter is the Lesser Evil,” particularly with her observation that the mainstream #MeToo movement’s support for Dr. Blasey Ford during the Kavanagh hearings was nowhere to be found when Tara Reade came forward with her accusations against Joe Biden. As Tylim states, “it’s evident that feminists have failed the test of being able to stand up to the Democratic Party when sexual assault rears its head at an inopportune moment.” However, we disagree with this characterization of #MeToo as a radical movement “on the brink of co-optation by the liberal establishment.” The process of cooptation began long before Alyssa Milano ever tweeted #MeToo, because cooptation was interwoven with the development of the movements against sexual violence that preceeded it. We offer this history of anti-violence movement cooptation in the spirit of comradely disagreement, that we might all sharpen our analyses of the obstacles we face as socialists who wish to oppose sexual violence everywhere.
The #MeToo movement was not the work of any single organizer, but rather had multiple mothers. One of these mothers was Tarana Burke, an anti-violence organizer, and survivor who coined the metoo slogan while working with young Black women in the American South. Other foremothers include the Battered Women’s Movement and Anti-Rape movements of the 1970s and 1990s, as well as the campus sexual assault activist wave that began in the early 2010s and immediately preceded #MeToo. The Women’s March of January 2017 was another mother of the movement; its most enduring symbol, the pink pussy hat criticized by some trans feminists for its gender essentialism, was intended as a sharp rejoinder to Donald Trump crowing about his ability to assault women with impunity. Working women’s movements like the Fight for Fifteen and organizing among farmworker women by the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas also contributed to the ferment around sexual violence in the years leading up to October 2017. When reporting from the New York Times and New Yorker on the sexual abuse of dozens of women and several famous actresses by Harvey Weinstein inspired Alyssa Milano to tweet the hashtag #MeToo, sparking an outpouring of personal testimony from millions of ordinary women about their experiences with harassment, sexual violence, and abuse, we should understand that moment as overdetermined.
#MeToo caught fire not because it was novel, but because it drew on decades of preceding organizing. Much of that organizing, however, was deeply entangled with the Democratic Party as well as capitalist and carceral state institutions. We cannot understand how the #MeToo movement failed to support Tara Reade without understanding the history of feminist anti-violence organizing in general. In the 1970s, women inspired by radical and revolutionary currents within the feminist movement founded rape crisis centers and women’s shelters which provided direct services to victims of violence through peer support and mutual aid. At the same time, anti-racist and feminist coalitions organized prisoner defenses of incarcerated survivors of violence like Joan Little in North Carolina, Dessie Woods in Georgia, and Inez Garcia in California. The feminists who organized prisoner defenses critiqued not only the interpersonal violence that had led to these survivors’ incarceration but also the racist state violence that kept them behind bars.
Yet not all participants in the feminist movement shared this critique of the carceral state: Susan Brownmiller’s landmark book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, which challenged prevailing rape myths and described rape as a fundamental tool of patriarchal domination, called for more aggressive prosecution and stiffer sentences for perpetrators of sexual violence. Angela Davis noted in her critique of the book that Brownmiller’s text contributed to the “resuscitation of the old racist myth of the black rapist,” going so far as to portray the brutally murdered fourteen-year old Emmett Till as a “guilty sexist” due to his alleged whistle at a white woman. The early push to bureaucratize the anti-violence movement and to collaborate with police and the courts was critiqued in 1977 by Santa Cruz Women Against Rape in their seminal “Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement.” The authors stress the need for an international, revolutionary movement against rape and domination of all forms, and urge the mainstream anti-violence movement to join them.
Instead, in 1994 the institutionalization of the once radical feminist anti-violence movement was cemented with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, a part of the omnibus Crime Bill from that year. The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, directed federal funds both towards the provision of services for survivors of violence, such as shelters and rape crisis centers, as well as toward the prosecution of accused rapists and batterers. At the same time, the Crime Bill as a whole intensified policing and stiffened penalties for a whole host of crimes. Anti-violence organizing in the decades to follow was at once professionalized and depoliticized by the flood of funding that accompanied the passage of VAWA. Joe Biden was a key architect of both VAWA and the Crime Bill, and has repeatedly made reference to VAWA’s passage and reauthorization in attempts to win over women voters. Biden cited the passage of VAWA as a triumphant accomplishment in a May 1st statement, while simultaneously using it as a shield against Tara Reade’s accusations. If we want to understand why the diffuse network of non-profit staffers, media personalities, activists, and Democratic Party politicians who might lay claim to the feminist mantle in the age of #MeToo was so singularly unwilling to oppose Joe Biden’s nomination after Tara Reade came forward, the history of the anti-violence movement’s institutionalization is vital.
The radical and liberatory elements of #MeToo have been in tension with this legacy of cooptation from the beginning. #MeToo’s focus on the violence of wealthy and powerful men in politics and media was both a product of the movement’s particular attention on privileged women but also contained within it the seeds of deeper anti-capitalist sentiment. Watching media titans like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and sitting Senators like Al Franken lose wealth, power, and status was genuinely thrilling. Yet the backlash for #MeToo came nearly immediately, not just from right-wing media figures and Republican politicians but from within the Democratic Party establishment as well. When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called on Al Franken to resign after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, she was swiftly punished by donors who withdrew financial support. For Democrats, the writing was on the wall: going forward, #MeToo could attempt to topple Republican politicians like Brett Kavanaugh or Trump himself, but Democratic politicians were to be left alone.
Thus, while we disagree with our comrade Natalia Tylim’s analysis of when and how #MeToo was coopted by the Democratic Party, we wholeheartedly agree with her assessment that the Democratic Socialists of America should champion the #MeToo movement in light of betrayals by the leadership of the Democratic Party. If feminist anti-violence activists are to have any hopes of holding Democratic politicians accountable or avoiding complicity with the carceral state, they will need a pole for their organizing capable of challenging the Democratic Party, whose current ticket features an author of the 1994 Crime Bill and a former DA who helped enforce the meteoric rise of mass incarceration in California. Feminists committed to anti-violence work need a left-wing movement which will resist the carceral state and fight for the abolition of prisons and policing. This movement must also commit to transformative justice within its ranks, rather than attempting to quash accountability in the service of partisan advantage. Across the world, from Chile to Mexico to Poland, socialist feminists fighting against sexual violence and for bodily autonomy have been key leaders of broad-based left-wing movements. As our Emerge Caucus comrades have argued, the Democratic Socialists of America is the likeliest current formation in which to build “a party-like organization based in the working class,” and this organization could provide a political home for anti-violence organizing.
Unfortunately, at present the Democratic Socialists of America is not a natural home for this work. The reasons for this are twofold. First, DSA has not sought to be that home. While many socialist feminist members of DSA protested against Kavanaugh’s nomination in 2018, ongoing socialist feminist organizing in many large DSA chapters has not focused on sexual violence. Socialist feminists are part of many political projects in DSA with more or less feminist emphases, but explicit feminist organizing has concentrated around abortion access and reproductive justice (worthy causes!), not #MeToo and sexual violence. Second, DSA has experienced a number of scandals around both sexual misconduct and leadership missteps in addressing sexual misconduct in both the membership in general and in leadership. These scandals have shaken member trust in DSA, have caused dedicated socialist feminist organizers to leave DSA, and have caused loss of trust in DSA as an organization by unorganized socialist and anti-capitalist feminists who might have considered joining the organization otherwise.
This problem is not unique to DSA by any means, as failure to address sexual violence within movement spaces is a persistent threat to the left. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) dissolved in the first months of 2019 after its members lost faith in leadership, primarily but not only because of that leadership’s participation in covering up a rape committed by one of its members. The classic essay “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants” by Courtney Desiree Morris describes how tolerance of sexual violence within movement spaces by leftist leaders, dating back to the Black Panther Party, does the work of COINTELPRO for the state. In the midst of uprisings around Black liberation and police brutality, several groups on the abolitionist left were publicly called out for harboring a serial abuser. Anecdotally, the authors can attest that similar problems have erupted both in DSA chapters across the country and in other socialist organizations on the US left.
Like our comrade Natalia Tylim, we were also signatories to a letter to the National Political Committee of DSA calling on DSA to make a statement in support of Tara Reade and against Joe Biden’s candidacy (Biden was then the presumptive, not actual, Democratic nominee). The NPC ultimately made no such statement. As socialists, we recognize that if we have failed to persuade the national organization of the need to publicly stand in solidarity with survivors, it indicates a general weakness in socialist feminist organizing and development throughout DSA that can best be addressed by becoming better organized. We are pleased to announce the reformation of the national Socialist Feminist Working Group and hope that interested members who wish to build a mass movement against sexual violence will join or form local socialist feminist formations through their DSA chapters and engage in organizing in the national working group. In our next article, we will explore how the Democratic Socialists of America might address the persistent problem of sexual harassment and violence within its ranks while also building a socialist anti-violence movement that could serve as an alternative to the liberal and carceral feminist tendencies that have come to dominate anti-violence organizing in the United States.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the rape [that triggered the crisis] was committed by one member against another. It was not; the survivor was outside the org (but in the union that the ISO member was a union organizer for)