Listen to what socialist women are saying about misogyny on the left

A controversy involving the podcast Chapo Trap House shines a light on bigger issues.

Like many women, Margaret McLaughlin is used to dealing with sexism and harassment, whether it’s on the street or in the workplace. And the Democratic Socialists of America, where she is the Washington, DC, chair, isn’t always a refuge.

“At steering committee meetings, I’m interrupted by men who feel they can talk over me,” she said of her organization, which is 65 percent male. She’s not alone. Other socialist women have told her they’re “tired of men not paying attention to the world outside of them,” she said. “It comes out through harassment, abuse, mansplaining, or ignoring women.”

Allegations of sexism against the socialist left aren’t new. During the 2016 primary, some Hillary Clinton supporters argued that misogynist “Bernie Bros” were unfairly criticizing their candidate. To many leftists, these criticisms felt like a smokescreen to distract from centrists’ unwillingness to confront more fundamental class divides.

But now similar criticisms are coming from within. A series of controversies over the past two weeks — many of which have stemmed indirectly from sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein — has reinvigorated a debate over whether the socialist left has done enough to condemn the misogyny in the ranks of a movement explicitly devoted to gender equality. Socialist women are becoming increasingly vocal in decrying what they call socialist men’s encouragement of misogyny, while also stressing that leftist attacks on the Democratic Party cannot be reduced to sexism and that sexism is not confined to the left.

For McLaughlin and other socialist women, the fate of a renewed American socialism may hinge on this fight. Though the DSA quadrupled in size in the past year alone, it’s still a blip in the larger left-wing universe. Whether the new socialist left can transcend its peripheral status will depend on if it can incorporate — and listen to — the women in the movement demanding a firmer stance against sexism.

“I don’t think the men of the left are any more or less misogynistic than any other group of men,” McLaughlin said. “But leftist men just think with the equality of classes and races will come the equality of genders, but that’s not necessarily true. If men aren’t willing to do the work, it’s not going to happen.”

The latest controversy on the online socialist left, explained

Before we get to the recent controversies that have brought the issue of sexism on the left to the fore, here’s a quick rundown of the main players involved:

  • The Democratic Socialists of America: The 30,000-member-strong DSA has grown rapidly across the country since Bernie Sanders’s presidential run and Donald Trump’s election. (Jeff wrote a broader explainer about DSA, which you can read here.) Its founding was explicitly committed to anti-racist and anti-sexist work against capitalism, and — though often dominated by men at the local level — it boasts women leaders at the top of its leadership structure.
  • Chapo Trap House: A leftist comedy podcast hosted by four men (Will Menaker, Felix Biederman, Virgil Texas, Matt Christman), and one woman (Amber A’Lee Frost), Chapo Trap House earns enough through its Patreon account to gross approximately $1 million annually. (The show has about 20,000 subscribers, who each pay $5 per month. Jeff, a co-author of this piece, is a paying subscriber.) It’s been the subject of numerous profiles, including in the New Yorker and the New Republic, and it is known for delighting in vulgarity and mockery of liberals it views as uninterested in confronting the horrors of capitalism.
  • Cum Town: A podcast co-hosted by comedian Nick Mullen, Cum Town grosses close to $250,000 annually. The two shows openly swap compliments and promote each other, though Cum Town is much more vulgar and says it is not interested in politics.

The hosts of Chapo have actively promoted the DSA, while Cum Town is less political. But both have vocal, overlapping fan bases who are active online, and both have gained an outsize visibility on the left — Chapo and its fans don’t represent the full spectrum of American socialism, but few socialists, other than Sanders himself, have as big an audience or as large a platform from which to broadcast their views.

Earlier this month, Josh Androsky, an officer with the DSA in Los Angeles, tweeted a photo of himself and two of the hosts of Chapo Trap House — Menaker and Christman — posing with Bill Cosby’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the tweet has since been deleted). The caption, “Hey libs try taking THIS statue down,” was a reference to conservative responses to calls to dismantle Confederate statues.

The tweet, Androsky later explained, was meant to be a criticism of Hollywood in the wake of revelations about Weinstein:

But as DSA-LA acknowledged, many saw it as an inappropriate joke at the expense of harassment and assault victims. “The use of glib and ironic language around such a serious issue minimized the experience of survivors,” the steering committee of DSA-LA said in a statement. “Our city is littered with monuments to men who have abused the women in their lives and confronting that cannot happen if the conversation is one that is too hostile or glib for women and survivors to want to participate in.”

Androsky apologized for the tweet, resigned from the Los Angeles steering committee, and pledged to undergo sensitivity training. Chapo Trap House has donated $10,000 to the Victim Rights Law Center, which helps victims of sexual abuse and assault, and the podcast hosts apologized for the Androsky joke immediately.

But around the same time, another tweet touched off further controversy. This one came from Cum Town’s account:

Nick in the tweet is Nick Mullen, one of the hosts of Cum Town. The tweet, like Androsky’s, seemed to make light of the allegations against Weinstein, and contributed to the feeling among many that the left needs to address misogyny within its ranks.

For its part, Chapo tends to argue that it is primarily a comedy show — and that neither it nor Cum Town should be held to the standard applied to political leaders, when their main goal is to make their listeners laugh. (On its most recent episode, Frost said she had vetoed the idea of doing a full Chapo episode about sexual assault, saying a conversation about rape between four men and one woman would be “counterproductive to the discussion” and that other activists were better resources.) And, of course, comedians well outside the left have a long history of defending jokes deemed offensive or inappropriate by the broader culture — some don’t think it makes sense to hold Chapo to a higher standard. Cum Town has similarly denied that it is about politics:

Leftists have long been suspicious of blanket allegations of sexism

All of the above might seem a bit confusing to those not glued to the internecine debates of the online left. But the controversies have broader implications on the national political stage — particularly for the female supporters of Bernie Sanders, who deeply resent the notion that all socialists are sexists.

“For the past two years, I’ve been trying to defend myself and my male comrades from charges of sexism and misogyny. But we keep giving them ammunition,” one female socialist told Vox. “I’m worried this will be added to the litany of Bernie Bro accusations.”

Chapo and other voices on the left have long criticized Hillary Clinton’s approach to gender politics, arguing that Clinton only wanted to promote diversity within the richest class of Americans, rather than taking on the much more important goal of achieving economic justice for all. “The focus shouldn’t be on getting the 1 percent to be exactly the right percentage of blacks and women. The problem is America’s savage gap in inequality,” Menaker told Vox in an interview last summer.

Meanwhile, liberal critics have long seen sexism in the left’s attacks on Clinton; they doubted, for instance, that Chapo’s audience only enjoyed attacks against Clinton out of devotion to the class struggle.

Such criticisms have long come from the center, and many leftists have seen blanket allegations of sexism against the left as being made in bad faith, as efforts to discredit socialism without engaging with its ideas. But now some within the socialist left see a need for change — partially to remove one weapon from the centrists’ arsenal, but also because they believe elevating women is crucial for the movement’s survival.

“You can’t promote socialism while at the same time maintaining political, and social relationships with those who see women as property and punchlines,” the leftist Roqayah Chamseddine wrote on her blog. “Combatting the reinforcement of patriarchy in our communities means challenging the way in which exploitation is reproduced amongst ourselves — how trauma is used as fodder for jokes, how silence is encouraged in order to spare our organizations from media attention, how victims are manipulated into questioning their memories, and feelings.”

Women on the left have been concerned about sexist jokes and online harassment for some time

The tweets were just the latest evidence of a problem some women on the left say has been brewing for a while. It’s not just about offensive jokes — women have reported online harassment from Chapo fans and other self-identified leftist men. (There’s no reason to believe leftists are more likely to harass women online than any other political group.)

“I’m a socialist, but I’ve definitely been the victim of sexist Chapo fans getting mad at me on Twitter, and it makes your life fucking hell,” another female leftist writer said. “My unfortunate tactic is don’t say anything negative about Chapo people or Cum Town people because it’s not worth the shit you get.”

Both Chapo and Cum Town revel in vulgar humor — it’s part of the ethos of the “dirtbag left,” a term coined by Amber A’Lee Frost, one of Chapo’s hosts. As Jia Tolentino notes in her New Yorker profile of Chapo, Frost has written in detail on the politics of vulgarity, arguing that “reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility.”

But many on the left say there’s a difference between making dirty jokes and mocking assault survivors. “I have defended the dirtbag left, and as a movement I’m interested in it and interested in vulgarity,” said Eve Peyser, a writer at Vice and self-described leftist. But, she said, “saying ‘rape is funny’ is offensive and really disrespectful to every woman I know who has been sexually assaulted.”

“Jokes matter,” said Tim Faust, a DSA organizer and Jacobin writer who has appeared on Chapo Trap House several times as its health care correspondent. “The answer isn’t, ‘Don’t make jokes.’ The answer is, ‘Get better at making jokes.’”

“When we articulate what we are on the left, we must be crystal clear we are building a house or a fortress in which those who sexually assault women or harass women — or those who otherwise perpetuate or reenact any kind of oppression — aren’t welcome,” Faust said. “End of sentence.”

Sexism is far from unique to the left — but it could be turning people away from the movement

Misogyny isn’t “specific to the left,” Peyser said. “It’s pervasive.” She takes issue with the idea that Sanders supporters are unusually sexist. “They’re no more sexist than Hillary supporters, and that talking point is a way to undermine his leftist policies,” she said.

But, Faust points out, a failure to deal with misogyny on the left has come with a cost. Some women “feel the culture is an impediment to their getting involved in socialist organizations.”

Democratic socialism in America has made big strides since Sanders announced his candidacy. Left-of-center candidates are succeeding in local elections, and the DSA is growing in size and visibility. But challenges remain. Ever since Sanders’s primary campaign, the socialist left has struggled with the perception — exemplified by the Bernie Bro stereotype — that it’s overwhelmingly white and male.

The DSA now has many female and nonwhite leaders, and half of its national steering committee is composed of women. The group believes that the reforms it calls for, like a $15 minimum wage and single-payer health care, will help address not just economic inequality but racial and gender injustice as well. And the DSA explicitly supports programs like “universal daycare, eldercare, and paid family leave” as a way to help working-class and migrant women. But the perception of the group as packed with white “brocialists” persists. Changing that will require a serious reckoning with racism and misogyny.

“I know that a united left can push back against criticism from the center, and the only way to unite the left is to walk the walk,” Faust said. “The goal is to make people feel safe and comfortable so they can do the work they — and we all — want them to do.”

To do that, leftist organizations and individuals need to make clear that they will not tolerate harassment, Faust said. “If you abdicate that responsibility, you give people the cover to harm others.”

In McLaughlin’s view, change starts with men taking responsibility. Too often, she said, “it still falls back on women and gender nonconforming people to be the explainers of the problem.”

She has plans for fixing that in her chapter of the DSA. “We’re going to make men do some homework,” she said.