Stop the economic determinism on sexual violence

Acknowledging the structural nature of sexual violence needn’t result in narrow economism.

CW: sexual violence

If you attended the most recent USyd SRC meeting in March, you would have seen the organisation’s budding activists and student politicians grappling with the distressing results of the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS). Released last month, it revealed the devastating extent of sexual violence in Australia’s universities. 

This is, without a doubt, a challenging issue. It’s important that we can discuss it openly and think deeply about the root causes of sexual violence on campus.

All the same, in the  SRC meeting, I was frustrated by the prominence of one particular narrative: the idea that sexual violence is a economic phenomenon which is exclusively produced by capitalism and can only be ended by anti-capitalism. 

Before I unpack why this worries me, I’ll make some caveats: poverty, exploitation, insecure work, unpaid labour, etc. etc. have obvious, undeniable implications for the status of women in our society. It is true that the way our economic system is set up disadvantages women. It is also true that economic vulnerability puts women at greater risk of experiencing violence. 

Nonetheless, I disagree with the framing of sexual violence as a purely economic issue on a few levels.

First, let’s consider the claim that sexual violence is a direct consequence of capitalism. 

There is a deep, excellent body of literature (see: Federici) which tackles the orthodox narrative that history is rife with the mistreatment and oppression of women, and that capitalism has represented teleological improvement in those conditions. These scholars point out that women’s rights have not been linear — instead, the rise of capitalism occurred concurrently with a shrinking in the acceptable sphere within which women could thrive. Capitalism was indeed fuelled by the unpaid domestic labour of women, who — unseen, and for free — engaged in ‘social reproduction’ (that is, fed, clothed and raised the workers capitalism requires). 

I find this theory pretty persuasive, but in my view, *certain* socialists extend it beyond its logical implications. To claim that capitalists, as a cohesive and conspiratorial class, created gendered oppression requires a fairly unintuitive and ahistorical ignorance of centuries of chauvinistic classical philosophy. It’s not like rape and violence is absent from contemporary accounts of the ancient world! 

More realistically, the interests of capitalism as it developed, at the dawn of widespread industrial and colonial expansion, conveniently aligned with the already existing interests of conservative religion and patriarchy. 

So while it is true that capitalism often benefits from and perpetuates gendered structures of reproductive labour, it isn’t really true that misogyny is endogenous to capitalism. There are other deeply rooted and culturally ingrained sources of misogyny that need to be confronted. 

Second, even if it is true that sexual violence arises soley from capitalism, does it then follow that ending capitalism necessarily fixes it?

I think it’s a logical mistake to assume it does. The structures of sexism have practical effects on the way that individuals and communities view the world — people internalise misogyny. 

Why do individuals undertake sexually violent acts? Most people would acknowledge that it is not purely because of the perpetrator’s economic position. Clearly, on a phenomenological level, sexual violence has more to do with a sense of entitlement and the dehumanisation of the victim. 

Why do communities tolerate sexual violence? Again, not straightforwardly because of their economic composition. Attitudinally, many communities are disposed to disbelieve survivors. Culturally, communities often hope to protect those with social power and prestige — who have the most social license to commit sexual violence. 

Even if these mechanisms are produced by capitalism, they would likely persist beyond it, because they are now ingrained in our psyches. Anyone with protracted involvement in leftist spaces on campus will be more than aware that even the most revolutionary of socialists can be implicated in sexual violence. Looking at some of the men who consider themselves part of a student ‘vanguard’, I find it challenging to believe that sexual violence would somehow organically disappear if they were central to a fledgling socialist state.

Why does this matter? I feel that the narrative that only anti-capitalism can end sexual violence can be used lazily. It means that socialists can feel comfortable in the fact that by opposing capitalism they are necessarily addressing sexual violence, avoiding dealing with the ubiquitous sexism within their own spaces. It declines responsibility for addressing sexual violence as a specific issue in its own right. 

We ought to think seriously about what it would take to truly end misogyny. We need to imagine what a society with ethical and effective accountability measures would look like. Deprioritising these conversations to exclusively favour anti-capitalism is a real disservice to survivors.

Third, economic determinism is a grim prospect for survivors stuck in the status quo. 

When people insist that sexual violence can only be fixed by anti-capitalism, it is often accompanied by a heavy serve of dismissiveness towards current policy attempts to address the issue. 

Obviously, tokenistic and myopic measures like university consent modules totally miss the root causes of sexual violence. Endless bureaucratic reviews and university drinking bans have similarly minimal chances of actually working. 

However, I think we should be reluctant to say that nothing short of a revolution can alleviate sexual violence. The revolutionaries on the SRC are, frankly, not particularly close to success. It is an incredibly dire prospect to imagine that survivors must simply wait for them to emerge victorious in revolution before we get some semblance of justice.

Activists have creative and principled minds. I think we should be optimistic about the extent to which they can be deployed usefully in the status quo. I’d like to think we can make people appreciate the cruelty of sexual violence now, that misogynists do have a hope of changing their minds, and that our communities can create systems to care for survivors properly. 

Fourth, sexual violence isn’t just about gender. 

While sexual violence is a gendered phenomenon, the analysis that capitalism produces sexism which produces sexual violence is overly simplistic. In particular, it leaves little room for explaining sexual violence within queer relationships. Being prescriptive about who does sexual assault and why risks neglecting some of the most vulnerable survivors. 

Frankly, the argument that sexual assault can only be fixed by anti-capitalism is likely just student socialists trying to fit the issue within their overall schema of how the world works and how we ought to fix it. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. By being overly simplistic and deterministic about sexual violence, we lack imagination and accuracy — to the detriment of survivors.