Recent revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s abuse and rape of women have exposed the sexism at the heart of society.
Many people knew about Weinstein’s behaviour, yet it continued for decades.
Several women have said they didn’t come forward because they felt Weinstein was so powerful he would destroy their lives.
The violence and harassment he is accused of are all too common for women and girls across the world. But why does it happen?
In the wake of the revelations millions of women have used the #MeToo social media campaign to describe their experiences.
This echoes the Everyday Sexism website, which receives dozens of comments every day from women who have suffered sexism, harassment or assault.
Meanwhile parliamentary surveys show that a majority of girls and young women have been harassed at school or college.
As Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore wrote last week, “The experience of sexual harassment is not a one-off. It’s the backdrop to many women’s lives.”
Unfortunately this can lead to the view that men and boys in general are the problem. In her column Moore deplored “All this collusion. All this male entitlement. All these men who still can’t listen.”
So are men the problem? And if not, what is?
The level of abuse directed at women is disgraceful. But we have to remember that the majority of men don’t rape and abuse women.
Several men have written #MeToo posts expressing their disgust at the abuse that women suffer. Others have detailed their own experiences of abuse.
Men can behave in dreadful ways towards women. They should always be challenged— and be pushed to change.
But abuse happens because of the environment we live in, not our biology.
Women’s oppression is structured into capitalist societies such as Britain’s.
Women still get paid less on average than men for doing the same work. A “glass ceiling” stops women accessing top jobs.
Women are more likely to live in poverty. They still take more responsibility for housework and childcare than men.
And women make up the overwhelming majority of victims of rape and domestic violence while harassment is all too common.
This structural oppression needs sexist attitudes in order to justify it.
The view that women’s lives are less important than men’s comes from the top.
Some judges give lenient sentences for rape because they say the woman was at fault—or that a harsher sentence would damage the man’s life.
Cops consistently fail to take crimes against women seriously. And there are MPs—men and women—who constantly try to limit women’s access to abortion or block moves to protect victims of domestic abuse.
We also live in a violent society, the worst of which again comes from the top. Governments ruthlessly pursue bloody wars in order to protect the interests of the rich.
They use armed police forces to keep order. And their policies condemn millions to lives of misery and poverty.
Working class men and women have a common interest in uniting to get women’s oppression. We can get rid of it—if we get rid of the system that breeds it.
On top of all this, women are treated as sexual objects. This isn’t simply due to individual attitudes. We are bombarded with images of women as sexually available objects.
Think of all the advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell products. Or the fashion, beauty and cosmetic surgery industries that encourage women to have a disproportionate focus on their looks.
Women are objectified and stereotyped in films, the press, popular music, TV quiz shows and soap operas.
We are told that this objectification is “liberating”. In reality, capitalism has alienated and distorted sexuality.
Women are treated as commodities to be bought, sold or stolen. All of this lays the basis for violence against women.
Our rulers promote the idea that it’s in our “nature” as men and women to behave in certain ways.
And they blame any problems—whether it’s violence against women or poverty—on individuals.
Otherwise we might blame society, and our rulers have an interest in upholding that society and so present it in the best possible light.
But sexism isn’t natural. If it was, it would exist always and everywhere. Yet anthropologists have studied many societies where such oppression was unheard of.
For instance, Eleanor Leacock found evidence of several societies where women’s oppression didn’t exist.
These include the Native America Naskapi hunter-gatherers who lived in Canada.
Leacock found “wide dispersal of decision-making among mature and elder women and men”. Men had no authority over women or superior status.
Leacock, like Frederick Engels, argued that women’s oppression developed with the rise of the family, social classes and the state.
Production developed to the point where there was a surplus, and a group that became the ruling class came to control it. The need for “legitimate” heirs to pass this onto required more policing of women’s sexuality.
Changes in production prioritised men’s labour over women’s and women’s key role became bearing and raising children.
The family is critical to the system because it produces the next generation of workers, and sustains the current workforce for free.
Oppression is rooted in the family, which is why many politicians today still present it as the norm and something to aspire to.
The truth is that most violence against women and children happens in the home. In contrast, women didn’t occupy an inferior position in pre-class societies. These were based on cooperation, not competition.So oppression hasn’t always existed – and it’s been pushed back during revolutionary situations too.
Before the 1917 Russian Revolution women were seen as the property of men and it was legal for peasant men to whip their wives.
Protests and strikes by women workers kicked off the revolution in February. And as the revolution unfolded, women’s position was transformed. Divorce and abortion were legalised.
Women won the full right to vote—at a time when only women in Norway and Denmark had the same right. The revolutionary government brought in equal pay, equal rights at work and maternity pay.
Communal nurseries, restaurants and laundries shifted the responsibility for this work from individual women onto society.
In 1919 and 1920 some 90 percent of Petrograd’s population ate communally.
More recently in Egypt, a revolution in 2011 saw women and men take to the streets to drive out hated dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Women played a leading role in the revolution and in strikes leading up to it. There were big protests to defend women following attacks by the military.
As revolutionary Mahienour El-Massry put it, “With time society starts looking at you not as a woman who is weak and needs help, but as a human.”
In both cases, vicious counter-revolutions pushed back the gains that women had made.
In Russia the dictator Joseph Stalin promoted marriage and abolished legal abortion.
Yet these rapid changes in women’s lives show that oppression is not natural, nor the result of the mindset or biology of individual men.
Accepting the idea that men are to blame for oppression lets the system off the hook. It encourages us to see other working class people as the enemy instead of our rulers.
It also often goes along with the idea that men benefit from women’s oppression.
Yet men aren’t better off if women don’t have abortion rights. Men don’t get pay rises just because women’s pay is held down. Their experience is different, but it’s only the bosses who benefit from division and low pay.
And the idea that working class men benefit from the system glosses over the harsh reality of their lives.
Men aged between 20 and 49 in Britain are more likely to die from killing themselves than any other cause.
Capitalism fails ordinary people—men and women—and women’s oppression is key to propping it up.
That means that working class men and women have a common interest in uniting to get rid of both.
Oppression flows from class societies that have existed for less than 10 percent of human history. We can get rid of it—if we get rid of the system that breeds it.
Class struggle toppled apartheid