By Tamara K. Nopper
Copyright ? 2005 Tamara K. Nopper
As a woman who has experienced physical and emotional abuse from men, some
whom I had long relationships with, it is always difficult to learn from
activist women that they are being abused by activist men.
The interrelated issues of sexism, misogyny and homophobia in activist
is rampant, so it is unsurprising that women are abused physically and
emotionally by activist men with whom they work with on various projects.
I am not speaking abstractedly here. Indeed, I know of various
between activist men and women in which the latter is being abused if not
physically, emotionally. For example, a long time ago a friend of mine
me bruises on her arm that she told me were from another male activist.
woman certainly struggles emotionally, which is somewhat expected given that
she has experienced physical abuse. What was additionally heartbreaking to
is how the woman was shunned by activist circles when she tried to talk
her abuse or have it addressed. Some told her to get over it, or to focus
?real? male assholes such as prominent political figures. Others told her
not let her ?personal problems? get in the way of ?doing the work.?
I struggled with my friend?s recovery too. As a survivor of abuse, it was
difficult to meet a woman who in some ways was a ghost of me. I would run
into this woman, and she would randomly tell me about another fight that she
and her boyfriend had gotten into. I would find myself avoiding this woman
because frankly, it was hard to look at a woman who reminded me too much of
who I was not too long ago: a scared, embarrassed and desperate person who
would babble to anyone willing to listen about what was happening to her.
other words, I, like this woman, had gone through the desperation of trying
get out of an abusive relationship and needing to finally tell people what
happening to me. And similar to how this woman was treated, most people,
those I called friends, shied away from listening to me because they did not
want to be bothered or were struggling with their own emotional struggles.
The embarrassment associated with telling people that you have been abused,
and like myself, stayed in an abusive relationship, is made even worse by
responses you get from people. Rather than be sympathetic, many people were
disappointed in me. Many times I was told by people that they were
?surprised? to find out that I had ?put up with that shit? because unlike
?weak women,? I was a ?strong? and ?political? woman. This response is
downright misogynist because it denies how dominant patriarchy and hatred of
women and the ?feminine? is, and instead tries to place the blame on women.
That is, we are to ignore that women are being abused by men and instead
emphasize the character of women as the definitive reason for why some are
abused and others don?t ?put up with that shit.?
I can?t help but think that other activist women who have been abused,
by activist men or not, also face similar difficulties recovering from
Regardless of one?s politics, women can be and do get abused. Anyone who
refuses to believe this either just doesn?t listen to women or think about
what women go through on the regular. And this is because they are just
hostile to recognizing how pervasive and normalized patriarchy and misogyny
are?both outside of and within activist circles.
More, a lot of us want to believe that activist men really are different
our fathers, brothers, old boyfriends, and male strangers we confront in our
daily routines. We want to have some faith that the guy who writes a
paper on sexism and posts it on his website is not writing it just to make
himself look good, get pussy, or cover up some of his dangerous practices
towards women. We want to believe that women are being respected for their
skills, energy and political commitment and are not being asked to do work
because they are viewed as ?exploitable? and ?abuse-able? by activist men.
want to believe that if an activist male made an unwarranted advance or
physically/sexually assaulted an activist woman that it would promptly and
thoughtfully be dealt with by organizations and political communities?and
the input of the victim. We want to think that activist groups are not so
easily enticed by the skills or ?name-power? that an activist male brings to
project that they are willing to let a woman be abused or have her recovery
go unaddressed in exchange. And we would like to think that ?security
culture? in activist circles does not only focus on issues of listserv
protocol or using fake names at rallies but actually includes thinking
proactively about how to deal with misogyny, patriarchy and heterosexism
outside of and within the activist scenes.
But all of these wishes, all of these dreams obviously tend to go
Instead, I know of activist men who troll political spaces like predators
looking for women that they can politically manipulate or fuck without
accountability. Like abusive priests, some of these men literally move from
city to city looking to recreate themselves and find fresh meat among those
who are unfamiliar with their reputation. And I have seen activist women
their labor and skills to activist men (who often take the credit) in hopes
that the abusive activist man will finally get his act right or appreciate
as a human being.
While romance between activists is fine, I think it is disgusting how
men use romance to control women politically and keep women emotionally
committed to helping the man out politically, even when his politics are
or problematic. Or, in some cases, activist men get involved in politics to
find women they can involve in abusive relationships and control. And given
that abuse brings out the worst in the victim, I have seen where women
interact with other activists (particularly women) in ways they might not
normally if they were not being politically and emotionally manipulated by
men. For example, I know of abused activist females who have spread rumors
about other activist women or have gotten involved in political battles
between her boyfriend and other activists.
What?s scary is that I know activist men who were abusing and manipulating
female activist and at the same time, writing position papers on sexism and
competition between women. Sometimes the activist male will pen the
paper with his activist girlfriend in order to gain more legitimacy. I know
of activist men who quote bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, or other feminist
writers one minute and are harassing or spreading lies and gossip about
activist girlfriend the next. And activist men will school activist women
how to be less competitive with other women to conceal their abusive and
What is more heartbreaking is the level of support abusive activist men find
from other activists, male and female but most usually other men. Not only
activist women have to confront and negotiate their abuser in activist
circles, they must usually do so in a political community that talks a good
game but in the end could give a shit about the victims? emotional and
physical safety. On many occasions I have listened to women?s stories of
abuse be retold and recast by activist men in a hostile and sexist manner.
And when they recast this story, they often do in that voice, the voice that
is snide, accusatory and mocking.
For example, when I was sharing with an activist male my concerns about how
activist female was being treated by an activist male who held a prominent
position in a political group, the man ?listening? to my story said in that
voice, ?Oh, she?s probably just mad ?cause he started dating someone else?
went on to make fun of her. He continued to tell me that while he
?acknowledges? the man is wrong, the woman needs to stand up to the man if
wants the treatment to stop. Unfortunately this man?s brand of misogyny
disguised as male feminism is all too common in activist circles given that
lot of men in general believe that women are abused because they are weak or
secretly want to be in relationships with abusive men. More, his comments
revealed an attitude that assumes that if activist women take issue with
activist men, they are ?crying abuse? to cover up hidden sexual desires and
anger over being rejected by men who ?won?t fuck them.?
I find it disgusting that women?s physical and emotional safety is of little
concern to activist men in general. While activist men will pay some lip
service to how they need to keep their mouths shut when women are talking or
how women only spaces are necessary, all too often ?critical? and
people do not want to confront the fact that women are being abused by male
activists in our circles. When the issue is ?addressed,? more often than
attention will be given to ?struggling with? the man (i.e., letting him stay
and maybe just gossiping about him). I have even seen some situations where
abusive men become adopted, so to speak, by other activists, who see
rehabilitating the man as part of their project and think little about what
this means for the women who are trying to recover. In some cases, the male
activist abuser was adopted while the woman was shunned as ?unstable,?
or ?too emotional.? Basically, these groups would rather help a cold,
guy who can ?keep it together? while he abuses women rather than deal with
the reality that abuse can contribute to emotional and social difficulties
among victims as they work to become survivors.
And in some cases, activist women will avoid going to the police because she
is critical of the prison industrial complex but also because other activist
men will tell her she is ?contributing to the problem? by ?bringing the
in.? But in most cases, the activist male is not chastised for the problems
he has created. Thus, women are stuck having to figure out how to insure
safety without being labeled a ?sell-out? by her activist peers.
While I am a strong believer that we need to try to work towards healing
rather than punishment per se, I am painfully aware that we often put more
emphasis on helping men stay in activist circles than supporting women
their recoveries, which might involve the need to have the man purged from
political group. Basically, the group will usually determine that the
activist abuser must be allowed to heal without asking the woman what she
needs from the group to heal and be supported in her process. I know of
examples of where women are forced to put up with the groups? unwillingness
address abuse. Some will remain involved in organizations because they
believe in the work and frankly, there are few spaces to go, if any, where
is not at risk of being abused by another activist or have her abuse
unaddressed. Others will simply leave the organization. I have seen how
women get treated by other activists?men and women?who treat women coldly or
they are selfish or sell-outs for letting the personal get in way of ?the
Or, if activist women who have been abused are ?supported,? it is usually
because she does ?good work? or that not addressing the abuse will be ?bad
the group.? In this sense, the physical, emotional and spiritual health of
women is still sacrificed. Instead, the woman?s abuse must be addressed
because if it is not, she might not continue doing ?good work? for the
organization or there might be too much tension in the group for it to run
efficiently. Either way, women?s safety is not viewed as worthy of concern
and of itself.
Overall, activist scenes are no safe space for women because misogynists and
abusive men exist within them. More, many of these abusers use the
tools of activism and support by other activists as means to abuse women and
conceal their behavior. And unfortunately, in a lot of political circles,
regardless of how much we talk about patriarchy or misogyny, women are
sacrificed in order to keep up ?the work? or save the organization. Perhaps
it is time we actually just care that activist women are vulnerable to being
manipulated and abused by activist males and consider that proactively
addressing this is an integral part of the ?work? that activists must do.
Tamara K. Nopper is a writer, educator and activist living in Philadelphia.