Over the past month over 50 women and counting have come forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. An investigation published by the New York Times at the beginning of October revealed that the co-founder of production company Miramax and well-known film producer has a long history of using his position of influence in the industry to get away with sexual harassment and assault. Weinstein has disgustingly used his position and economic power to threaten the women he assaults with damaging their career if they dare to speak out about his abuse. Equally disturbing is the complicity towards Weinstein’s predatory behaviour demonstrated by numerous staffers, executives, directors and actors who knew something was wrong and did not act — a symptom of how normalized sexual violence against women is in capitalist society.
While stories like this shock us because they involve public figures, sexual violence against women is sadly a day-to-day reality. This reality has been brought to light with the #MeToo campaign that has taken social media by storm in recent weeks. Originally created by activist Tarana Burke a decade ago, the hashtag went viral when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault to post “Me too” as a status in order to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. The hashtag has been used more than 1.7 million times on Twitter and within 24 hours there had been more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions related to the campaign by 4.7 million users around the world. The online movement was also joined by LGBTQ individuals who experience disproportionate levels of violence. While the hashtag went viral in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the pervasiveness of sexual violence in Hollywood, the scope of its use shows that it is not solely actresses working in a field where the objectification of women is considered the norm who experience sexual assault, rather it is a common experience of all women under capitalism.
Weinstein has been stripped of his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was fired by the board of directors of his company, Miramax. Although these were necessary immediate repercussions, these actions do not even begin to scratch the underlying forces behind the pervasiveness of sexual violence, let alone solve them. We can’t forget that Weinstein was able to get away with his predatory and abusive actions for decades because of his wealth and the power he held over anyone trying to make it in the movie industry. This is a dynamic that is reflected in workplaces all over the world as the bosses control the worker’s livelihoods, making women particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.
Workplace harassment and sexual assault are widespread. Any claims that this issue is overblown come from an ignorance of the available statistics. In a 2014 Canadian poll by the Angus Reid Institute 43% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet most remain silent for fear of not being believed, having career opportunities sabotaged, and even being blamed for the abuse. The same poll found that a staggering 80% of women did not report sexual harassment to management. These numbers confirm the pressing problem that exists in our society, which lacks a proper solution within the framework of the exploitative and oppressive capitalist system that gives rise to it.
Despite equality before the law between men and women, sexism is clearly prevalent. Formal equality on paper does not change the reality that capitalism relies on the oppression of women to provide free labour in the home and cheaper wage-labour in the workforce, making them doubly oppressed under this system. Discriminatory attitudes toward women are used to justify their unequal position in society, which serves to drive profits up for the bosses and works to keep men and women workers divided, similar to how other divisions such as race, gender and sexual orientation are used to prevent the working class from uniting. These attitudes permeate capitalist society and result in pervasive violence against women.
The fight against discrimination and the oppression of women must be a struggle for the entire working class as the oppression of one section of the class drives everyone’s standard of living down. We cannot have any illusions in management in the workplace, the administration of our campuses, or the state, to serve the interests of women or any other section of the working class. Time and time again, those at the top sweep the sexual violence experienced by women and LGBTQ individuals under the carpet in order to protect their own. We have no choice but to fight violence against women through collective action from below. Mass mobilizations, walkouts, sit-ins and strikes must be organized until justice is served and abusers are held accountable.
The organizations of the working class and youth, such as the trade and student unions, can play an important role in leading these efforts. Pressure from mass mobilizations can force the courts and workplace management to think seriously the next time they consider trivializing the experience of a sexual assault survivor. However, these institutions have interests that are diametrically opposed to the vast majority of workers and youth and actively seek to promote the capitalist system that perpetuates violence against women. For this reason we must link the fight against violence against women and demands for measures that would make women less vulnerable to violence, such as guaranteed housing, universal child care, and pay equity, to the socialist transformation of society.
Marxists are under no illusions that come the socialist revolution we will immediately be living in an oppression-free utopia. The traditions of past ages weigh like a mountain on modern society. Class society and the oppression of women has existed for thousands of years — such traditions can’t be shaken off in the blink of an eye. What is needed is a fundamental change to the way society is structured – not tinkering around the edges, but to turn the whole system upside down. Only by shaking society to its roots can we hope to dislodge such an accumulation of rotten prejudices.
The news of Weinstein’s atrocious acts has brought the conditions that exist for women and oppressed genders into the limelight once again. In order to fight this oppression,which ultimately lowers conditions for all workers, we must mobilize a united class struggle based on demands that can combat the underlying roots of oppression and discrimination. Such demands include: equal pay for work of equal value; investing in quality childcare, housing, and domestic facilities available to all; allowing every woman complete autonomy over her body; ending discrimination against LGBTQ people; and equal access to housing, education, healthcare, social services, and employment for all! When people are forced to fight over crumbs they are susceptible to discriminatory attitudes, but on the basis of genuine social and economic equality those attitudes will begin to melt away.
The only strength of the exploited and oppressed is in unity across gender, race, sexuality, and other divides. It is therefore in the interests of the whole working class, including men, to fight the oppression of women.