Addressing sexual assault and harassment: What can we do better?

Addressing sexual assault and harassment: What can we do better?

Introduction

The aim of this article is to improve the Socialist Alliance’s practices in dealing with sexual assault and harassment allegations, both within our organization and on the wider left. I want to appraise the strengths and weaknesses of our existing guidelines, and propose some changes. I also argue that it isn’t only a matter of getting policies and procedures right. It’s also about party culture. I propose some ideas for cultural change and how we might bring it about.

Why Is this important?

In recent years we have witnessed a resurgence of feminism in Australia. A variety of campaigns have put women’s rights on the map again, after the long period of feminist decline that followed the second wave. The battle against rape culture has been central to this resurgence, exemplified by the mass march following the murder of Jill Meagher, the campaign against “pick-up artist” Roosh V, and most recently the “#metoo” social media campaign.

This feminism of the Internet age has demonstrated the magnitude of rape culture. When the "#metoo" hashtag first went viral it rapidly established the magnitude of the problem: almost every woman has a "#metoo" story. A range of left and progressive organizations have participated enthusiastically in the current feminist resurgence, including the Socialist Alliance. Yet because rape culture is so entrenched across the whole of society, it is inevitable that incidents of sexual harassment and assault arise in left organizations too. We are aware of this. We remind ourselves that “we do not live in a bubble”. Consequently, any leftist movement that shines a light on rape culture will inevitably end up shining an uncomfortable light on the left itself.

This is exactly what has been happening. It began years ago, with a major breakdown of the UK Socialist Workers Party that was a wakeup call to left organizations around the world. Many more allegations of sexual assault and harassment have come to the surface since then. High profile controversies include those around Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and the Greens.

With rape culture in the spotlight it is crucial that we are able to respond appropriately to allegations against Socialist Alliance members when they inevitably arise. This is no minor question. It is the kind of thing that can rip left organizations to shreds. If our response is inadequate we risk losing members. We risk splits. Sexual assault can traumatise groups of people as well as individuals – it can traumatise a whole branch and activism is stressful enough without this on our plates as well. It can lead to the breakdown of trust within our organization and to the erosion of party democracy.

Our relationship with broader movements beyond our organization is also at stake. If we fail to properly address allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, we risk the erosion of our feminist values and our solidarity for the working class as a whole. As a precondition for breaking down rape culture in the wider public we have to address it in our organization. An example of this could be in our trade union work. If we protect perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment in our own organization, we can’t expect our comrades to stand up to them in a workplace situation. This is also a critical question for the development of female leadership in our organization; we rightly recognize that revolutionary change cannot happen without women leaders. Sexual assault is a barrier to the development of women leaders on the left. Our hard, patient solidarity work with vulnerable communities can also be undermined – rape culture doesn’t just subordinate women, but also queers and racial minorities.

Of course it’s a million times worse on the right. We only witnessed the tip of the iceberg of the right’s rape culture when Trump supporters openly chanted “grab her by the pussy” at a Sydney university election party. And we are well aware that this is an entrenched problem across the whole of society, hardly particular to the left. But for all the reasons I have outlined, we have a responsibility to hold the left to a higher standard.

There are many challenges to addressing rape culture in left organisations. The sheer magnitude of the problem is a huge barrier. Rape culture is grounded in insidious social patterns that are largely unconscious. As long as we live under capitalism, we won’t get it perfect. But I am certain that we can do a lot better than what we are doing. What follows is my appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses, and what I think needs to change.

Strengths of our guidelines

There is a lot that the Socialist Alliance does well. I don’t think the Socialist Alliance has any problems that are not shared by the broader left. In fact, we are ahead of much of the rest of the left in so far as we have guidelines [1] in place for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. At the time of writing, the Greens, for example, had no such guidelines.

There are many positive features of our guidelines. It is codified in our guidelines that sexual assault will not be tolerated under any circumstances. There is an emphasis on the removal of people close to the perpetrator from processes of dealing with assault allegations. There is an emphasis on the process being victim-led.

Further, our Constitution [2] allows for women’s caucuses even though the DSP was deeply allergic to them. This is significant. It means that if women see a problem in the organization we are free to formally discuss it amongst ourselves.

Our guidelines state that we support people to take action, including legal action. This is an advance on the UK SWP and other organizations that admonish their members against taking legal action because that would be collusion with the capitalist state. Our guidelines do not advocate that our members should be protected from legal consequences if they commit a sexual assault.

At the same time, our guidelines state that we must address allegations of sexual harassment and assault. We can’t just fob victims off to the horribly inadequate legal system – this is another common excuse that left and other organizations use to avoid holding perpetrators to account.

We have a level of formal democracy codified in our constitution that is perhaps our greatest protection. Our membership has a right to overturn decisions of our leadership, including on questions of whether or not a perpetrator should be expelled from the party. We can vote leadership bodies down in a branch meeting or at our national conference.

Shortcomings of our guidelines

Although our guidelines look great on paper, implementing them in practice reveals their shortcomings. The most serious shortcoming, in my opinion, is that our guidelines rely on untrained people to make serious decisions about matters that require specialized knowledge. Decisions about whether to expel or otherwise reprimand alleged perpetrators are left in the hands of our national executive, branch leadership bodies, or the branch. It is also codified in our guidelines that branch and national organizers are to play grievance officer and support roles.

Now, there is a lot that party people are very good at. We organize excellent protests. We present wonderful educationals. We produce a newspaper every week that is a shining light of the left press. And so forth. But most of us are not trained in how to deal with sexual assault allegations. We have studied things like the Russian revolution in great detail, but most of us have not formally studied the psychology of perpetrators of sexual assault. This can lead to all sorts of naïve thinking that can be very damaging. Well-meaning party leaders can inadvertently protect perpetrators out of an expectation that they will change their ways, or that the “nice guy” image they project is their true self and the sexual assault incident was just an anomaly, or that they can just get counseling. There is an underlying expectation that we can “win them over”, fostered by our general activist practice of “winning over” the wider public on important social questions. (I think this is generally the correct practice, but perhaps not so applicable here!).

It is understandable that untrained people can be very naïve about the ugly mental gymnastics that can go on in the minds of sexual assault perpetrators. The human mind is capable of profound self-deception, even to the point of disassociation or split personalities. Hence, we get to know many perpetrators of sexual assault as “nice guys” and even “feminists”. What is to prevent an untrained comrade, even a party leader, from getting drawn in to the subtle manipulative mind games that perpetrators of sexual assault can play?

Another major problem is that our constitution states that allegations should be handed over to the NE if it’s not appropriate for the branch to handle them. This is positive, in so far as we recognize that a branch leadership can have a bias toward a perpetrator within the branch. However, allegations of sexual assault and harassment need to be handled speedily. If there is a possibility that there is a perpetrator of sexual assault in our midst, there may be an urgent need to expel them in order to prevent more people from being placed at risk, or we may need to prevent the person making the accusation from being subjected to prolonged trauma when they have to wait a whole month to hear the outcome of their complaint. Generally, the NE only meets once a month at most, which is not often enough to address sexual assault allegations quickly. Further, the NE has many urgent political matters to discuss. This is the body that coordinates party-wide activity in between meetings of the national council. They have a lot on their plate. I don’t think it is wise to take up the valuable time of the NE with such stressful, time-consuming matters.

Our guidelines are silent on our responsibilities toward the broader left and progressive movements. We have no procedure in place in the event that one of our members assaults or harasses a non-member, or in the case that the accuser leaves the organization during the process of the investigation. Further, if we take action against one of our members, it is not clear whether we have a responsibility to inform the wider left. It is important that we address this in the event that one of our members or former members could place people at risk beyond our party. It is also unclear how we protect people, our own members and the wider left, from perpetrators outside of our party.

Our guidelines emphasise confidentiality and transparency but it is unclear how we might balance them in practice. It can get very hairy indeed. People might be traumatized if we don’t inform them from the outset if an allegation has been made. For example, a person with a prior history of being sexually assaulted might feel very hurt if he or she spends a great deal of time with somebody who the branch leadership knows is a perpetrator, but has not been informed. Yet if we inform the membership of the allegation from the outset, this could risk a full-blown branch-wide battle that could get very ugly indeed.

There is nothing in our guidelines about safeguarding the mental health of comrades delegated to deal with sexual assault allegations. We do not consider that they might have their own trauma history, and dealing with these allegations might trigger past trauma. We do not consider whether they might need debrief counseling, or whether retraumatisation might have an impact on their ability to carry our political work.

Our guidelines state that both the person reported to have been assaulted and the accused member should be assigned contact people on the executive to keep them informed about the progress of the allegation. This is all well and good, but a conflict of interest can arise if the accused perpetrator’s contact person is on the decision making body. Keeping in such close contact with the accused perpetrator can significantly bias the contact person in the favour of the accused. For this reason, the contact person should not be on the decision making body but should restrict their role to communicating information between the decision making body and the accused.

The contact person for the person reported to have been assaulted should not be on the decision-making body either. Listening to a person’s trauma can be stressful enough, without having the responsibility of making a decision about the allegation. This contact person should also restrict their role to that of a messenger.

Our guidelines do not address the conduct of supporters of the accused. Supporters of the accused can traumatise the accuser in various ways, by victim blaming, putting pressure on them to stay quiet, rape apologism, or by spreading popular but harmful beliefs about sexual assaults, or rape myths.

Our guidelines do not give any guidance about complaint processes against people handling the investigation. They merely state that the accuser can take the complaint to the NE if branch bodies are too biased. The people handling the complaint need to be accountable, particularly to the survivor of sexual assault or harassment.

Ultimately, there is a problem with the party investigating itself. Comrades have a strong tendency to stick up for comrades. This basic organizational solidarity is of course crucial to the survival of a socialist organization in a capitalist world, but it can mean that comrades stick up for perpetrators. To remove the possibility that a party member might seek to protect a perpetrator simply because they are comrades, perhaps it would be best if an independent body could investigate allegations that arise from left organizations. However a precondition for this would be the greater unity of the left itself: no left organization will want to risk exposing their party to sectarian attack in case such a body might harbour a bias against their organization.

Proposals for changes to our guidelines

The most obvious change, to my mind, would be to set up an elected body of people with training and experience in how to handle sexual assault allegations. As well as preventing the decision-makers from being easily drawn in to the manipulative mind games of perpetrators, it would also free up our NE to get on with other things.

One way to do this could be to provide training in our party. If we were to proceed down this path we would have to either identify an appropriate training program or devise one ourselves. This could be very time consuming.

Another way to do it might be to elect a body to deal with sexual assault allegations, comprised exclusively of party members who have prior training in this area. We already have quite a few members with prior training, including people who work with victims of sexual assault, people experienced in addressing sexual assault allegations in trade unions and left/progressive movements, people with legal training, and so forth.

We should enshrine in our guidelines the understanding that sexual harassment/assault by one of our members against a non-member is just as serious as sexual assault against a member. In this case, I’m not quite sure what the procedure should be. In as far as it is possible, I think we should try to follow the roughly the same procedure. I invite comrades to bring their ideas forward about what such a procedure might look like.

I think that if we expel a member due to sexual assault allegations, we should consider whether we have a responsibility to inform the wider left, and we should recognise this responsibility in our guidelines, without stipulating how exactly we should inform the wider left. What is best will no doubt differ from one city to the next, or from one situation to the next. The wishes of the survivor should also be respected. If the survivor does not want the matter to be made public, we shouldn’t impose this on them.

We should enshrine in our guidelines the understanding that people elected to leadership positions in our party, and also people with a following in the wider community, have double the responsibility to get this right. This applies tenfold to our members elected to local council, and (in future!) to parliament. The people who do the most to carry the reputation of our party on their shoulders also have extra responsibility to never commit sexual harassment/assault, and to never protect people who do.

We should acknowledge in our guidelines that the Socialist Alliance has a responsibility to assist people in accessing debrief counseling if they are delegated to deal with sexual assault allegations. We should also assist any member who is sexually assaulted by another member in finding counseling, as our guidelines advise.

We should acknowledge in our guidelines that supporters of the accused can traumatise victims of sexual assault, and we should try to think of ways to address this. Education can help to address this problem. Yet because education doesn’t always resolve this issue, branches might consider whether to enact disciplinary measures against supporters of the accused as well as the accused.

Party members, particularly survivors of sexual assault raising allegations, need clear mechanisms in place to make complaints against the people handling the investigation. An accuser should be able to appeal to the NE or to an NC if he or she feels that the decision making process is inadequate. The NE or NC can then decide how to address the situation, for instance by asking a member of the investigative body to stand down.

Strengths of our culture

Unlike some other left organizations, we are proud of our feminist principles. We do not generally subscribe to the notion that violence against women is merely a superficial expression of the deeper problems of capitalism (although sometimes we might make mistakes in that direction). Rather, we cultivate the understanding that the labour of women in the home is central to the reproduction and maintenance of the working class, and that violence and harassment subordinate women in the home and at work. With this analysis in mind, we conduct feminist educationals as a matter of priority, and on a regular basis. Among other important feminist topics, we conduct educationals about rape culture.

This grounding in theory has important practical implications. We recognize that women are structurally subordinated by the capitalist system, and feminist struggle is therefore central to anti-capitalist struggle. I would hope that this means we are less likely to automatically believe the accused man’s protestations of innocence, and we are less likely to quiz women about what they were wearing. This is the exactly the kind of scenario that has been rumoured to take place in other left organizations with much weaker feminist principles such as the UK SWP.

We have a cultural emphasis on “dealing with things politically”. This is a double-edged sword, and I will explain its shortcomings in the next section. The positive aspect of this is that we are often able to hold problems up to the light of day and look for a resolution, with the understanding that there is a wider political project at stake. Our feminist principles are not just built out of compassion or moralism, we situate our thinking in a wider framework of anti-capitalism. This means we understand the importance of unity among workers and the oppressed. This should give us additional incentive to get it right; we can’t risk being divided and conquered because of sexism.

We have a deep engagement with feminist movements in which we often proudly play a leading role. Our organization is tied up with the broader social challenge against rape culture, and we have everything to gain from it.

We have an emphasis on democracy in our party. Every party member knows, or at least they should, that it is their right to challenge the leadership on any question.

We have an emphasis on activist discipline. No matter what our personal feelings are, we understand, or at least we should, that we have a higher loyalty toward the struggle and to the party. I’d like to think that this is a barrier against the corruption of our leadership (bearing in mind that in a capitalist world, the corruption of our leadership is always a possibility).

Finally, we place a greater emphasis on interpersonal sensitivity than some other left groupings. We are often mindful that traumatized, oppressed people need to be treated gently. We don’t have an entrenched culture of barging into vulnerable communities like a bull in a china shop, arrogantly lecturing people about the merits of Marxism. We have a stronger culture of listening to peoples’ grievances and nurturing them to stand up for themselves. I would like to think that we are capable of extending this compassion to people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted, even if it happens to be by one of our own members.

Weaknesses of our culture

In our organization we work hard to understand prejudice as a structural phenomenon. This is our priority, and rightly so. To have any chance of addressing the root causes of prejudice, we need to understand its basis in political economy. Many of us were trained in the DSP to address prejudice first and foremost as a social phenomenon. We were trained to “deal with it politically” rather than utilising the “guilt fix method” of admonishing individual comrades for acts of prejudice. This was codified in the document “Organisational Principles and Methods of the Democratic Socialist Party[3]”, which states:

…I want to illustrate how the party doesn’t operate. This is what I call the “guilt fix” method. This is the method where organizations adopt, or are challenged to adopt, the notion that comrades should cleanse themselves from the sins of racism and/or sexism, for example. This cleansing may take the form of confessionals, or self-criticism…

When such an approach is adopted the organization turns in on itself, pitting member against member in a constant battle of accusation and confession. Moreover, such a method is totally counterproductive to dealing with the question under consideration. What kind of self-confidence can new members achieve if every time they open their mouths they are denounced as a racist or a male chauvinist? What kind of political education can new members receive if doling out guilt is the major activity of the organization? At the heart of such a method is the notion that the personal salvation of each member is necessary to make the party into the instrument for forging fundamental social change. Instead of educating members on the material roots of oppression and how it can be eliminated, the “guilt fix” method tries to make people feel guilty about themselves and their past. In the end, this method rests on the liberal assumption that oppression and discrimination are the result of individual prejudices, rather than social institutions…

Such a method transforms potential social movements into personal navel-gazing clubs… Our method is radically different. We try to educate our members to understand the social causes of oppression and the political solution to it…

Moreover, the party is well aware of the burdens and distortions of confidence that members bring in to the party through racism, sexism, class experience, etc. So the party takes steps to encourage its members to overcome the effects of such experience on their political activity – to take on tasks which they have been socialized by their oppression to think are not for them. This is through encouragement, education, thinking out ways for each comrade to broaden their experiences, etc.

On the whole I agree. Any comrade who has set foot in campus politics recently knows all too well the destructiveness of the “guilt fix” method. Too many student activist conferences get completely bogged down in checking privilege and scrutinizing microagressions, while the need to fight the government and big corporations is completely forgotten.

The problem is that while we recognize the importance of addressing the interpersonal dimensions of prejudice, we give comrades very little formal direction about how to do it. In the absence of formal instruction in what to do specifically about problematic individuals and interactions, the default has been to try and “deal with them politically”. In the case of particularly abusive people, for reasons I have already outlined, this simply doesn’t cut it. A man who has repeatedly groped women against their consent for the past ten years, for example, won’t necessarily stop doing it through “encouragement, education, thinking out ways for each comrade to broaden their experiences, etc.”

Prejudice is interpersonal as well as structural, and in our organization we don’t usually conduct formal education about its psychological dimensions. There is insufficient awareness of the unconscious nature of most prejudice. For example, comrades will often pull up comrades on sexist language. This is positive, but it is also quite easy. Sexist language is something that sits on the surface of social interactions for everybody to hear. Comrades don’t necessarily notice or understand, however, the more insidious ways that sexism operates. Sexism is ingrained in body language and in subtle patterns of speech and behaviour. Men are more likely to interrupt women than the other way around, for example, and are also more likely to dominate group discussions. This is verified by academic research.

What do we do about unconscious prejudice, or “microaggressions” as they are often called these days in identity politics circles? We don’t have an answer. It is a hard question, but I think it’s important that we try to develop an answer. So-called “microaggressions” can lead to “macroaggressions” very quickly. If men develop a culture of interrupting women, demonstrating an unconscious dismissal of whatever a woman might have to say, how will they respond if a woman raises an allegation of sexual assault? Will they listen or will they just interrupt her and dismiss it just like everything else she has been saying? This is important because party democracy isn’t just about formal rules. It’s also about party culture. As much as it is about enshrining the majority vote in our constitution, democracy is about the leadership listening to the membership, especially the most vulnerable people in the membership.

Even on the level of language there is room for improvement. It is quite common, even in our own organization, for people to talk about “low level sexual harassment”. This is a term that we should erase from our collective vocabulary. There is no such thing as “low level” sexual harassment. Rape culture is so entrenched in our society that it is very common for people to be sexually assaulted and harassed on many occasions throughout their lifespan. What might seem like “low level” harassment to someone who hasn’t had a particularly painful trauma history might be devastating for somebody who has.

We don’t prepare our members for real life scenarios. A comrade might be well versed in our guidelines for dealing with sexual assault. A comrade might know them like the back of his or her hand. Yet this knowledge doesn’t necessarily prepare a comrade for real-life situations that can be highly confrontational. How would you respond if your best mate and closest comrade in the party is accused of sexual assault? Would you do the principled thing and let the party go through its processes unimpeded to decide whether or not to expel them? Or would you do everything in your power to try and protect your accused friend? I wonder how many comrades have even thought about it?

We maintain a critique of identity politics in our party, which I think is important. At the same time, I worry that sometimes we throw the baby out with the ID-pol bathwater. We don’t train our comrades much in dealing with the interpersonal dimensions of oppression. For all their flaws, the ID-pol people do. They might have figured out some things that we might learn from if we were to listen.

We have inherited a view of human nature from Marx and Engels that is, in my opinion, way too rosy. We teach the notion that greed and selfishness are not part of human nature. We often cite hunter-gatherer societies as evidence supporting this view. Yet examples of greedy and selfish behaviour are abundant in the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherer societies.

The romanticizing of hunter-gatherers and of human nature has, in my opinion, distorted our understanding of women’s oppression and what to do about it. Hunter-gatherers themselves do not have such a rosy view of human nature as what we do, and I think we have much to learn from the wisdom in their life ways. I think they implicitly recognize the ugly side of human nature and they hold it in check with social norms to enforce egalitarianism. They curb selfishness through demand-sharing, and they often have no qualms about punishing violent men - they don’t just try to “educate” them. Aboriginal women in Arnhem Land and Cape York traditionally kept fighting sticks exactly for this purpose.

I have noticed a push toward restorative/transformative justice in our party and I think it is deeply problematic. The merits of pure transformative justice systems in dealing with sexual assaults have not been verified by research. It is worth noting that in parts of the world where restorative justice systems are widely used to deal with violent crimes, such as highland Papua New Guinea, these systems are effective because the threat of punitive justice is just around the corner; if apologies and efforts toward compensation break down, warfare can break out.

I raise this because I think the push toward restorative justice has the potential to undermine our ability to deal decisively with perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. It is a philosophy that can lead us to think we should let somebody stay in our party and try to redeem themselves, when in fact they should just be expelled. I wish to stress that I do not think that punishment should be the primary aim of our guidelines. The primary point of our guidelines is to ensure a safe working environment in our party. That said, I have no qualms about punishing perpetrators, and I do not think we have the resources to rehabilitate them.

Most importantly, our guidelines should never be dismissed as “just guidelines” unless there is exceptionally good reason. The word “guideline” sounds less forceful than “rule”, and stressful circumstances might tempt comrades to cut corners. Yet if we are going to go through all the trouble of drawing up guidelines, we have to take them seriously or we risk the pandemonium that our guidelines are designed to protect us from. The importance of adhering to our guidelines needs to be inculcated at every level of our party, from the branch to the NE. Our guidelines need to become part of our cultural common sense.

Proposals for changes to our culture

It isn’t hard to think of ways that we might start to address these problems. We could conduct educational sessions in branch meetings about unconscious prejudice and what to do about it. We might also draw up a written document. Plenty of research has been conducted about how people unlearn prejudices. We might study that research and develop some guidelines based on it.

I’m told that the DSP used role-playing to train people. This is a method we could explore again. Party leaders could role-play various scenarios to prepare them for dealing with sexual assault allegations in real life. People need to be ready to expel perpetrators at the drop of a hat if necessary, even if it is their best friend, or at least step aside from the process.

As I said, we are good at listening to vulnerable people most of the time. We need to deepen our existing culture of sensitive listening in order to minimize a tendency to plough through people because we’re the Marxists and we think we know best. We have, in our party, some people who are already excellent listeners. Trade unions sometimes train their organisers in listening skills – we could simply borrow some of their training materials.

We could have a thorough discussion about identity politics. Our critique of identity politics is something we inherited from socialists in the 1990s. But in politics we never step in the same river twice. We need to identify how the current incarnation of ID-pol differs from what socialists faced in the 1990s. We need to identify what we want to reject and what might we learn from.

I would like it if comrades could read my contribution from a few years ago about the origins of women’s oppression, and consider whether or not Marx and Engels were wrong about human nature.

We need to conduct a vigorous debate about the merits of restorative/transformative justice in dealing with sexual assault cases. I think it has been absorbed into our collective thinking too uncritically.

We must take our guidelines seriously. We already conduct branch educationals about the content of our guidelines. This is positive. We need to use these educationals to reinforce the understanding that our guidelines should not lightly be dismissed as “just guidelines”. We should also inform all of our new members about these guidelines when they first join. As well as taking them through the ITS and ITM class series, we also need to inform them of our guidelines.

We could provide all people tasked with dealing with sexual assault allegations with a list of services to go to for debrief counseling. Comrades at the branch level could be delegated to investigate what suitable counseling services are available in their local area.

The left as a whole: Not just us

I do not see any of these problems as particular to the Socialist Alliance. They are problems of the left as a whole, and of course they are deeply entrenched problems across the whole of capitalist society. This is not a problem that can be resolved by trying to fix the problems in any one organization. Yet even though every left organization is inevitably affected, sectarian competition on the left means that organizations are reluctant to come forward about problems. Organisations fear that addressing things risks sectarian attack. Or attacks from the right. Which leads to the frankly ridiculous situation in which all left organizations have the same problems but keep quiet about it because each organisation fears reprisals from the other. Every left organization tries to present a squeaky clean public image, reinforcing the generalized silence on sexual violence in society. Yet the “#metoo” social media campaign has already established the magnitude of the problem. We should feel more freedom now to discuss these things openly.

We could play a leading role on the left if we were to publicly acknowledge that there have been problems in our organization about how we have dealt with sexual harassment and assault allegations, and that we are trying to think through some solutions.

If we can break down some of the sectarianism, we will be in a stronger position to consider how to address sexual assault allegations in the broader activist communities that we participate in. This requires collaboration across different organizations. We need to consider whether we ultimately need a body that can handle the allegations of the left as a whole, and we might seek to form alliances with other organizations and individuals to bring this about.

At the same time, we need to be wary of creating a false and superficial solidarity between left organizations that can make the problem worse. We should not under any circumstances protect perpetrators of sexual assault or harassment in other organizations in the name of “left unity”. Such an approach not only risks exacerbating the problem in our own organization, but across the left. In the "#metoo" age we simply cannot afford to take these kinds of risks with the public reputation of the still small and fragile Australian left.

Proposed amendments to the Socialist Alliance Code of Conduct

[NB: Proposed additions are highlighted in underline bold, proposed deletions are highlighted by strikethrough.]

1. Sexual Assault is unacceptable within Socialist Alliance. Sexual assault by a Socialist Alliance member against a non-member is equally unacceptable.

2. A person who reports sexual assault against them by another a Socialist Alliance member should be supported to access professional counseling and advice regarding their options including reporting the matter to police for investigation. Branch executives should familiarize themselves with the organizations and resources available in their local area for this purpose, such as sexual assault counseling services and women’s health centres.

3. When dealing with a report or observation of sexual assault the executive national body elected to deal with reports of sexual assault should act as promptly, and confidentially, as fair process allows. It should be understood that victims of sexual assault have a right to have their confidentiality respected, however perpetrators have no such inherent right. On the condition that the accuser gives consent, a decision making body may consider whether it is appropriate or necessary to inform people beyond the body of events that have occurred. Branch executives should familiarize themselves with the Code of Conduct and the Constitution for this purpose and should liaise with a national convener Socialist Alliance member professionally trained in dealing with reports of sexual assault if they require advice and support. Branch executives should also consider the impact of the report on members with a trauma history. Branch members may be discretely informed that an allegation has been made, and who this allegation has been made against. The need to inform people in order to prevent trauma needs to be carefully weighed against the need to keep the process confidential to prevent its distortion.

4. Each meeting of the national body elected to deal with sexual assault allegations shall have a chair and a minutes secretary. The approved minutes shall be forwarded to the national executive and to the branch of the accuser and accused. Decisions shall be made by show of hands or by simple majority vote. Decisions of this body may be overturned by the national council or national conference.

45. A decision according to the constitution regarding the membership of a member accused of sexually assaulting another person should not be delayed pending the result of criminal proceedings.

56. The role of the branch or national executive body elected to deal with reports of sexual assault i.e. as decision-maker on membership and not as a quasi-judicial body judging guilt or innocence, should be made clear to all members involved in a report of sexual assault.

67. If a person who has reported a sexual assault against them by a member wishes to withdraw their report, their wishes should be respected.

78. All reports of sexual assault to a branch executive should be notified to the National Executive promptly. They should also be promptly referred to a national body elected specifically to deal with reports of sexual assault. Branches may elect one person or several to serve on such a body. A person should be elected to this body on the basis of their expertise and training in these matters. This body can make decisions on membership. Members elected to this body should familiarize themselves with counseling services in their local area in case they need to debrief. 1800Respect is a free national counseling service that can provide a debrief service.

89. Upon receiving a complaint, the first action of the body elected to deal with sexual assault allegations should be to ask the accuser what they would like to be done about the situation.

910. Both the person reported to have been assaulted and an accused member should be assigned contact people on the executive to keep them regularly informed on the progress of the matter and for them to contact when they want to. In order to prevent a potential conflict of interest and to minimize stress, these contact people should not serve on any body that makes decisions about reports of sexual assault. Rather, they should act as messengers between the decision making body and the alleged victim and accused member. Contact people should be informed of counseling services available in the local area in case they need to debrief. If no free counseling is readily available in the local area the National Executive may consider whether to grant funding so that contact people can access professional debrief counseling. There should be maximum transparency and accountability of process balanced with respect for confidentiality.

1011. Members of an executive dealing a body elected to deal with a report reports of sexual assault who are friends of the accused member, or have worked closely with them, should not participate in the decision-making process. If this is not possible on a branch executive the matter should be referred to the national executive.

1112. If either the person reporting the assault or the accused are members of the executive body elected to deal with reports of sexual assault, then they shall excuse themselves from all deliberations and decision-making regarding the matter. However if the person reporting the assault is not the alleged victim, he or she may act as a messenger between the decision-making body and the person reported to have been assaulted.

1213. A person reporting that a member has sexually assaulted them may elect to have their report dealt with by the National Executive rather than by a branch executive. the National Executive or branch executive, rather than a national body elected specifically to deal with reports of sexual assault. The person should however be informed that this would mean the report would be dealt with by an untrained body.

13. A branch or national executive dealing with a report of sexual assault may decide to form an investigation subcommittee to investigate a matter but the decision under the constitution, regarding membership of the accused can only be made by the executive as a whole (not including those members who have excused themselves due to a conflict of interest).

14. Any member with knowledge of the matter should be allowed to speak to the executive national body elected to deal with reports of sexual assault, on request, but no information about the facts of the case should be provided to members making contributions in this way. The executive’s elected body’s role should only be to listen to their contribution.

15. Any decision made on membership should be presented for ratification by the branch concerned. Members of the branch who are close friends of the accused should excuse themselves from this decision.

16. If a decision has been made to expel a member due to sexual assault allegations, the branch should consider whether they have an obligation to inform the wider activist community beyond the Socialist Alliance that this decision has been made. This is in order to protect the wider activist community against further sexual assaults. Branch members who are close friends of the accused should excuse themselves from this decision.

17. Supporters of the accused can traumatise the accuser by placing pressure on them to stay quiet, spreading rape myths, rape apologism or victim blaming. Branches may wish to consider on a case by case basis whether or not to enact disciplinary measures against supporters of the accused, such as censure motions suspension or even expulsion, against supporters of the accused.

18. An accuser should be able to appeal to the NE or to an NC if he or she feels that the decision making process is inadequate. The NE or NC can then decide how to address the situation, for instance by asking a member of the investigative body to stand down.

 

Proposed Amendments to the Socialist Alliance Constitution

4.5 A financial member who through their actions brings the Alliance into disrepute or who engages in behaviour that disrupts the inclusive and non-sectarian democracy of the Socialist Alliance (which may include breaches of the Code of Conduct), or that is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the Alliance, may be asked by the branch executive or the National Executive to show cause within 30 days why the member’s membership should not be suspended or cancelled. The relevant branch or, the National Executive or a national body elected to deal with reports of sexual assault, shall after that time make a decision to maintain, suspend or cancel that person’s membership.

4.8 The National Executive is empowered to consider an appeal against the suspension or cancellation of a member’s membership by a branch and may take evidence in writing or other form in making its decision. The National Executive will consider an appeal within 60 days of the lodgement of the appeal with the National Convener, and convey its decision to the appellant within 7 days of making its decision. A decision of the National Executive under this Section is final. However if the membership has been cancelled due to allegations of extreme misconduct such as sexual assault, violence or murder, the National Executive may decide not to consider an appeal.

END

 

[1] https://socialist-alliance.org/documents/code-conduct

[2] https://socialist-alliance.org/documents/constitution-socialist-alliance

[3] Organisational Principles and Methods of the DSP. Published by Resistance Books, 1998.

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