Sexism from “the left”: why it has to stop

A spectre is haunting the left. The spectre of feminism.

I expect nobody is as annoyed by that opening line as me, but it got stuck in my head and I had to write it down somewhere, and here’s as good a place as any. I’m sorry.

I’m writing this in a fit of fury at the latest manifestation of left sexism, having spent two days in an argument with a left-wing man and a lot of his left-wing mostly male followers where they have been absolutely refusing to see the point I’ve been trying to make. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last unless something absolutely spectacular gives right at this moment. As I can’t hear the sweet sound of kyriarchy falling over and smashing into dust, I can only assume that all of this is going to happen again in due course.

Sexism on the left comes in forms as diverse as the beliefs of those who are lumped under the umbrella term of “the left”. The most overt form, perhaps, is outright sexist language (bitch, etc), and rape apologism (e.g. George Galloway, the SWP), but that’s the tip of a very sexist iceberg. Among the liberals, it often comes as a backlash against calling out sexism and pleas for unity. For some, sexism is a problem to be solved later, and we should, at present, fight the perceived “real enemy”.  Then there’s the manarchists, swinging their dicks as they ignore their female comrades. There’s also those who can say all of the right words, and then their behaviour doesn’t match up at all, and they will defend their behaviour using theory that they learned and are apparently incapable of applying to themselves. Others still think that they’re doing more than enough already to combat sexism. Then there’s the ones who insist that intersectionality is somehow equivalent to identity politics, proving that they are ignorant about what at least one of these things is. This is hardly an exhaustive list. Left sexism manifests in so many ways.

It all has one thing in common: that self-assurance that they are completely right which comes with male privilege.

The impact of sexism from those who are ostensibly on my side is different to that which comes from those who are unequivocally not on my side. While I’ve written about my “oderint dum metuant, fuckers” mentality when it comes to dealing with abuse, it’s much harder when it’s the insidious sexism of the left. It’s more wearing by far, as these are men who genuinely believe they don’t hate women so definitely aren’t sexist, who think they’re doing their bit to fight sexism. So they react defensively when it is called out, and are backed up by other men, who I can only assume are terrified of the creeping feminist threat coming to get them too. It doesn’t help that society–and indeed, the way we organise–immediately constructs “saying something sexist” as “being a bad person who needs to be purged”. This means it’s very difficult to call out dodgy behaviour without it turning into a massive attempt at denial to avoid being lumbered with the identity of “sexist pigdog”.

Let it be known, male comrades, that I’ll probably only think you’re a sexist pigdog if you react badly once the problem’s been called to your attention. Privilege blinds the privileged to its presence, and ignorance is forgivable. Once the curtain has been opened and you have an opportunity to reflect upon your own unexamined privilege, it’s your responsibility to do this.

I tend to be politer when I encounter left sexism than usual, and this is largely because I often have to organise with at least some of these people (although I refuse to organise with some of the worst). It turns out that when I’m polite, it has an incredibly devastating effect on my emotional wellbeing. As you may have noticed, I shout and swear. It’s kind of cathartic for me, rudeness. When I bottle it up, the anger turns inward, leaving me anxious and close to tears with frustration. I dwell, and it’s fucking horrible for me. I’m not quite silenced, but restrained, and it eats away at me.

And often, because of this, I don’t bother challenging it at all, because I know exactly how awful it would be for me. There, I am effectively silenced.

This is exacerbated, at least in part, by a prevalent belief that everything is a matter for debate. This debate ought to be held cordially and civilly, ending with either agreement, or at least by politely agreeing to disagree. For the privileged, it is perfectly easy to view oppressions as a sort of intellectual game and little more than a topic to agree to disagree on. For those who experience these oppressions, it’s not that simple and it’s not a fucking game. And so we’re branded as over-emotional about things which we don’t have the luxury of turning off our emotions on. It’s a thing we face every day, and its very existence is being denied and defended by those who claim to be on our side.

I feel like I’ve written my fingers to the bone on how we really need to get all of the shit out of our back garden before we can get things done, and I can’t believe I’m having to do it again and again. All of this oppression is connected, and all of it needs to be challenged. This time I’m aiming this same argument I’ve put forward a dozen times before at the men on the left who exhibit sexism.

If you want unity on the left, then listen to those you’re (probably inadvertently) shitting all over. Listen up and be an ally. It makes me sad when I feel a bounce of pathetic gratitude when I talk to men who Get It and behave as good allies. That should be the norm, not the exception. That it isn’t is alienating for many, and nothing ruptures a movement more than (probably inadvertently) pissing off more than half of the population.

Men on the left, try to be better. Feminist struggle is not an add-on to class struggle, and sexism is not a small problem, because all of this is intimately connected. If your revolution is one-dimensional, I want no part in it. Be open to being wrong, and be open to being corrected. It will strengthen us, not weaken us. Be reflective and thoughtful, acknowledge and abolish your own blind spots.

I want men on my side who I am proud to call my comrades, and there are far too few of these. I want to see better, and I want you to be better. We have a world to win, and I’d like to be comfortable organising with you. I’m one of those who feels able to say this, yet there are many who cannot, silenced against sexisms on all sides.

In truth, there’s no such thing as doing enough to work against sexism. It’s a vast, structural issue, and, as such, requires vast efforts to bring this system down. I’m not doing enough myself. No matter what anyone is doing, as an individual, it isn’t enough. If you’re a male ally, accept that you won’t be getting pats on the head for your good work, and if you’re doing any of this to get a pat on the head in the first place, fuck right off.

We really, really can win these interconnected battles, though, if only we recognise the connected nature and start to challenge our own privileges and prejudices in the most important place: within ourselves.


Note on terminology: I have come to despise the term “the left”, signifying a diverse range of beliefs and ideologies which share almost nothing but a few common enemies. Often, it feels like I’m not on the same side at all as a lot of those who profess to share enemies with me, since I disagree with many about issues such as tactics, the role of the state and intersectionality. While I don’t feel that “the left” is a particularly meaningful category, I use it here as shorthand for that umbrella term of those opposed to those who definitely aren’t on my side, who are themselves classed as “the right”.

Also, obviously I’m oversimplifying when I say “men” and “women”. These problems also manifest in the form of cissexism and bad assumptions about gender, something which I, as the most cis woman on the planet, am occasionally guilty and am receptive to being called out on. “Men” can be read as “cis men”, and “women” to be “those who they oppress, who are often, due to statistics, cis women, but also covers trans people, intersex folks, genderqueer and non-binary identified”. Come to think of it, women is a terrible term, but I’m leaving the cis privilege I exhibited when writing this intact as I’m crap at rephrasing things effectively. Help appeciated in the comments 🙂

29 thoughts on “Sexism from “the left”: why it has to stop”

  1. It always surprises me how many people take the simplest criticism or disagreement as an personal attack on their character.

    1. The inability to do so just makes things escalate. I do think that it’s exacerbated a lot by this self-assurance that comes with male privilege–I’m more open to being called out, perhaps, because I don’t have that.

    2. If you define yourself, and your character, as “not sexist” then being called out on a sexist behaviour is an attack on your character. This other person is saying that you are doing something that is the exact opposite of how you define yourself. It’s not surprising that people view it as a character attack.

  2. I don’t understand how this simple concept is so hard for people to understand, surely it’s intuitive to every person, but it get’s lost somewhere when ego becomes involved.

    Also, looking at the twitter debate, I got the impression Owen Jones thinks the left is an actual club with rules, rather than an ideology.

  3. Thankyou for this. Your comments about being politer to lefty men? Yes. The past couple of days have left me feeling far more emotionally stretched due to forced civility that with any other person I would have felt able to shout and swear at. I was at the point where I was shaking and I felt really, really sick. That only made me angrier, ’cause if it had been someone else it never would have gotten to me.

    Also agree 100% with you on the silencing thing. I felt so awful by the end of Sunday night that I wished I’d never said anything. After today, I worry that I won’t next time.

    1. It really galls me that we’ve ended up this way. I fight it where I can, but it’s infinitely more exhausting than letting go at the misogynists with both (metaphorical) barrels.

  4. Brilliant. I totally agree; there’s a difference between being sexist (which can be, and often is, completely unintentional) and being “a sexist pigdog” as you put it. All too often when people are accused of being the former, they assume they’re being accused of the latter and subsequently talk about positive things they’ve done as if that completely excuses them for the mistake, rather than just apologising and moving on.There’s definitely a culture of “I’m an ally, so I can say whatever I want”.

  5. I don’t understand ‘the left’ as the side that shuts down discussion but apparently a lot do. It makes me sad 😦

    Divisiveness is kind of what the left is all about imo. It is what differentiates it from the authoritarianism and traditionalism of the right. An acceptance that people come at things from different perspectives, backgrounds and privileges and always will. Using an integral part of your shared beliefs to silence others strikes me as pretty bizarre logic.

  6. well said. agree with you completely.

    on another, very similar note – all male panels at lefty events, or having just one woman but then most the debate happens between men. This really really annoys me. It’s lazy and it’s silencing and it completely represents the idea that women and sexism are afterthoughts to the BIGGER MALE PICTURE!

    solidarity to you xx

  7. Reblogged this on Emergent Behaviour and commented:
    This. Totally. And yeah, I know how easy it is as a guy to react badly to being called out on sexism (or racism for that matter) – I’ve done it myself, but I hope to say I learned from the experience.

  8. There were also a lot of people – I saw men and women – who disagreed with you (and agreed with Owen) on Twitter simply because they thought you were wrong.

    Who think that Owen Jones’ recent article wasn’t defending or supporting a rape apologist, and that it’s possible to say “this man (Galloway) has said some repulsive things” and still learn something from the fact that he is popular and able to connect with the electorate.

    The article did (rightly) condemn Galloway’s rape remarks. Many readers did not regard the condemnation as a throwaway line.

    I appreciate that this may not have been strong enough for your liking, but to suggest that those who don’t agree that it ‘glossed over’ the remarks are being sexist?

    That they would agree if they weren’t so privileged?

    Isn’t this just another way we’ve found to dismiss the views of other people wholesale?

    1. I can’t speak for Stavvers, obviously, but I personally find the idea of saying we can learn anything from Galloway deeply unpleasant. If the article had been phrased as ‘how does this man, with his disgusting remarks, seem to get so much support’ rather than ‘what we can learn’ I might not have objected so much. But to include ‘rape apologism’ in a list of criticisms with ‘was on Big Brother’ certainly isn’t strong enough for my liking.

  9. So the article would have been ok if Owen wrote a couple more sentences slagging off Galloway for his rape comments?

  10. I was nodding along until I reached the last paragraph. So, so hurt and disappointed by it.
    I am technically ‘intersex’ – we prefer people who have disorders of sexual development.
    We’re not ‘intersex folks’ – thanks for the cutesy patronising language – we are PEOPLE who happen to have medical conditions. Would you call someone ‘a bipolar’ or ‘a diabetic’, no, you would say someone who HAS bipolar disorder or who HAS diabetes.
    Yet again, intersex PEOPLE are thrown under the bus.
    We are made to feel abnormal freaks enough, by the conservative establishment. Thanks for yet again telling us we’re not ‘real’ men or women. That we aren’t adults and aren’t sexual because we don’t develop ‘normal’ ‘sexual maturity’, as defined by society.
    We’re not that uncommon, kind of disproves the gender binary.
    The vast vast majority of intersex people have no issue with their gender, because we ARE men and women. How dare you tell us we are not.

    1. Thank you for this. I’ll admit I’m very behind on my intersex politics and this has helped me greatly. I’m sorry I upset you; that was never my intention, and I thank you for helping to educate me.

      1. This is the kind of graceful and explicit apology that I think men on the ‘left’ ought to venture more when called on sexist things that they do or say.
        As an aside, speaking as a lefty bloke who doesn’t always get my feminist politics right, it may be productive explicitly say “That thing you said/did was sexist” rather than “You can’t say that, it’s sexist”. Criticise the sin and not the sinner, as it were.
        Speaking for myself, that’s less likely to make me feel defensive; we’re all human and we all make mistakes, but being told we ARE a mistake a different category of criticism. It goes back to your point that ‘It doesn’t help that society–and indeed, the way we organise–immediately constructs “saying something sexist” as “being a bad person who needs to be purged”.’
        If nothing else, it lends more emphasis when you DO want to vent at an unrepentant, wilfully bad person.

  11. “I can’t speak for Stavvers, obviously, but I personally find the idea of saying we can learn anything from Galloway deeply unpleasant.”

    Why though, I think the left can learn a lot from the tabloids and the way they present information. I think the left can learn a lot from the populist style of people like Kelvin Mckenzie, Jane Moore and Richard Littlejohn. I even think the left could learn from Tommy Robinson’s Newsnight appearances,

    What they, and Galloway have, and which Owen Jones missed, is that they sound real, people connect with them, they aren’t part of an Oxbridge elite, but sound (even if they often aren’t) normal people living normal lives and dealing with normal shit.

    You don’t have to agree with Tommy Robinson or George Galloway to recognise that a big problem facing ‘the left’ is that most of the most high profile figures are neither of the people they claim to represent or even sound like they are. To deny this is to condemn radical politics to the middle class side-show it seems to be becoming and allows the rare exceptions like Galloway to be seen as the only authentic voice of the working class left amongst the people who matter – which is working class people.

  12. No comment I can make here that won’t be represented as an example of my apparent sexism, so I won’t be continuing to try to make points relating to substance.

    Suffice it to say I disagree with a lot of your characterisations (some of which I feel are directed at me) and I have reasons I will now not continue to try to make open as it is utterly pointless and simply encourages generalised abuse and ‘shutdown’ type responses in reply. From now, consider the skirmish won and me silenced and submissive. Ice cream all round.

    But it is worth letting you know that on reaching the bottom of the post there was an atrocious skincare advert titled with the caption ‘DERMATOLOGISTS FEAR HER’. Speaking of the left’s backyard, and given the (attempted) conversation,might be worth sweeping that up…

  13. Great post – thanks. Just one small thing – I do think that we should be polite. There is a place for getting angry, but it might not always be at the moment when we want it to be. It’s a question of strategy, in my view, and if we let emotions get in the way, it clouds our judgment. I sympathise with your natural preference for anger (so to speak) but my view is that activists should always be able to polite if required (and train ourselves accordingly).

  14. I agree with everything in your post. You’re entirely right.

    The thing is, I read your original disagreement with Owen Jones, and I didn’t agree with that. It didn’t make sense to me. I don’t really *care* that much about Galloway (he’s an idiot and I’m happy to limit my thinking about him to that), but fwiw I thought you were wrong.

    I wasn’t one of the people who publicly took a side over this, because if there’s one thing worse for one’s faith in humanity than witnessing a group of humans dividing into mobs on Twitter, it’s taking part in it yourself, even accidentally. That and the aforementioned not caring much about Galloway.

    I’d just like to say that it should be possible to disagree with you over that particular point without that being indicative of sexism on my part. Obviously I can’t stop someone from saying that it must be sexism, or from saying that my denial of sexism cannot be meaningful as I must simply be ignorant of my own privilege and therefore incapable of judging the matter. But, well, I don’t really have any other opinion than the one I have, and I’d like to think I could hold it, and argue it, without the question devolving into whether or not I’m making a sexist argument rather than an incorrect one.

    To be honest, I don’t hold you responsible for the quality of the debate. The quality of these kinds of debates, especially on Twitter, is generally pretty shit. So I’m definitely not saying that you should be doing anything differently, just voicing the fact that I wish it were possible to have proper debates about issues and facts rather than the usual sounding off or tribal-affiliation-by-condemning-the-other-side.

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