Taymaz Valley, CC 2.0

Photo by Taymaz Valley, CC 2.0

What ‘Defund the Police’ Means for Sexual Assault Victims


The survivor justice movement has historically relied on policing, which has always made it worse for victims. Abolishing the police state may give them a chance at justice.



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Amid an antiracist uprising across the country in the wake of recent police murders of Black victims including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others, people are increasingly demanding defunding of police as a crucial step toward abolition. But many are confused by what this actually means.

Abolition refers to the end of prisons and policing, reconstructing society to ensure everyone’s needs are met, survival-based “crimes” are no longer necessary or criminalized, and harm is addressed without dehumanizing, carceral solutions, which are more likely to reproduce and worsen harm, than alleviate it. Abolition is also inextricably bound to antiracist liberation, within a white supremacist, carceral police state like the U.S., which has long profited off of criminalizing, incarcerating, and exploiting Black existence.

Naturally, abolitionist thought requires imagination that many of us were discouraged from developing in a state that maintains its power through exploiting racist definitions of criminality and violence. When many people hear about a society without police, their minds immediately go to stereotypical violent crimes, largely because many people sweepingly associate violence with individual, interpersonal acts—murder, armed robbery, assaults. Meanwhile, we ignore the institutionalized state violence that’s led to more than 2.3 million people imprisoned in the U.S., often for the great crime of being unable to afford to live in a society that allocates nearly 25 times more funding to policing than housing.

There’s one crime that seems to come to mind most for people who oppose demands to end policing and incarceration: rape and sexual assault.

Yet, (at least) 40 percent of police officers are known domestic abusers, 60 percent of prison rapes are committed by guards and staff, 90 percent of incarcerated women are survivors, and the overwhelming majority of surveyed sex workers said they’re afraid to report violence they face to the police (probably, because the majority of them have also experienced threats and harassment from police.) An estimated one in four women has experienced sexual violence, and that number increases for women of color and especially Black and Indigenous women. It’s estimated between 65 and 85 percent of sexual assaults are unreported, for many obvious reasons stemming from the hostile and punitive criminal justice system. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested across the country, while just five out of 1,000 rapists will ever be imprisoned. The criminal justice system either neglects or actively harms victims and survivors.

As today’s pro-abolition, youth-led survivor justice campaigns—including Know Your IX—are increasingly aligning with the abolition movement, many activists are also acknowledging early survivor justice movements’ reliance on policing and carceral solutions and demanding change moving forward.

A history of carceral and punitive sexual violence policies

In 2007, the sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein defined “carceral feminism” as “the commitment of feminist activists to a law and order agenda and a drift from the welfare state to the carceral state as the enforcement apparatus for feminist goals.” Notably, the Violence Against Women Act, which is known as the foremost piece of legislation to protect victims, allocates two-thirds of funding to law enforcement and just one-third to victim services, and maintains an arrest requirement that places victims in danger of criminalization. Meanwhile, many survivors, advocates, and experts alike all agree punitive Title IX reforms are more likely to retraumatize than support victims.

Historically, the push for legislation like VAWA emerged from benevolent intentions. In the 1970s, women from all walks of life began organizing to raise consciousness about the conditions they faced in reporting and seeking justice and resources for sexual violence and domestic abuse. As Erica Meiners and Judith Levine recount in their book, The Feminist and the Sex Offender, some of these barriers included the requirement of burdensome and dangerous medical verification of rapes. Victims were also required to have witnesses, despite how sexual violence is often an inherently private act, and it was common for the defense in court to weaponize victims’ sexual histories against them — following their logic, any woman who had consented to sex once before therefore consented to all other encounters, the rest of her life.

White women were regarded as the most visible, palatable faces of the original movement. Because they had the privilege of being able to place greater trust in policing, progress for survivor justice was immediately bound to law enforcement and the greater criminal justice system. By the 1980s, police departments were opening up special units for victims, and by the 1990s, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) emerged. To its credit, VAWA played a critical role in acknowledging the gravity of domestic and sexual violence on a cultural level, and provided some funding for key resources such as victim hotlines, shelters, community education, and other means of support. But it also includes several mandates that place nonwhite, queer and trans victims at risk of facing criminalization and other threats, for behaviors ranging from self-defense from their abuser, or “fetal endangerment” for the outcome of their pregnancy, or performing self-managed abortion.

VAWA also requires arrests in reported domestic violence cases, including even dual arrests if there is ambiguity in who is the victim and who is the abuser. According to experts on abuse, this is a highly common dynamic in abusive relationships, especially outside of heteronormative contexts. Additionally, VAWA prohibits victims from dropping charges, and its tough-on-crime mandate borne of the 1990s has led to district attorneys in some jurisdictions subpoenaing and even jailing victims to coerce testimony against their abusers.

The requirement of arrest, criminalization, and even potential jail time discourages many victims from coming forward, and without the ability to trust and seek support from the state, many have nowhere to turn. They are often women of color, Black and brown women, undocumented immigrants, single mothers, sex workers, queer and trans women; they know their struggles are more likely to be met with criminalization than compassion. Immigration policy is an especially significant source of punitiveness and criminalization of victims and survivors: 60 to 80 percent of migrant women from Latin America experience rape and sexual assault in the process of crossing the border, and often face criminalization and detention upon entering the US. Undocumented women who experience rape or sexual and domestic violence are unable to report or seek safety and resources due to fear of deportation.

The inherently adversarial nature of Title IX campus sexual assault policies is rooted in prosecuting assailants rather than providing meaningful support to victims, exposing many victims to be retraumatized or further harmed. In some states, legislators have recently attempted to require schools to share reported assaults with law enforcement; many schools force faculty to be “mandated reporters,” despite how many victims of abuse do not want their experiences reported to authorities due to the punitive and hostile reporting process. Research has shown 34 percent of campus sexual assault survivors will wind up dropping out.

The American College Personnel Association has written of mainstream Title IX procedures: “Whether one is a fan of the Obama-era Title IX guidance or a critic, the debate about campus sexual assault has been narrowly framed in terms of an adversarial process that leaves only winners and losers, often ending with the ‘winners’ as just as miserable as the ‘losers.’”

Both VAWA and Title IX reforms alike often exclusively serve “good” victims — middle-class, straight, white women, who are regarded as the face of sexual violence victims. The white supremacist, patriarchal values of our criminal justice system are rooted in demand that we protect the virtue and innocence of white women, while simultaneously regarding women and girls of color with skepticism and hostility.

Survivor justice and abolition

The connections being drawn between the goals of abolition and the wellbeing of victims and survivors in this moment are crucial to paving the way forward. We must collectively understand that the carceral police system is more likely to further harm and endanger victims of abuse,  who are more likely to be criminalized and incarcerated than their abusers — often for self-defense, survival crimes, and even the outcome of their pregnancy, among other acts. There is a long history of women of color being investigated, prosecuted and even jailed for miscarriages and self-managed abortions, meaning victims who may experience miscarriage from harm from their abusers, or induce an abortion to escape their abuser, face risk of criminalization.

In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a Black woman, was arrested and incarcerated for firing a warning shot when her abusive husband threatened to kill her. Cyntoia Brown, a Black woman human trafficking victim, was incarcerated for 15 years for killing her abuser in self-defense. As recent as last summer, Marshae Jones, also a Black woman, was jailed for “fetal endangerment,” for experiencing a miscarriage when she was shot in the stomach. They are just three of unsaid numbers of Black women and women of color who have faced criminalization for the violence they experienced. Across the country, Black and Indigenous women face not only the highest rates of sexual violence, but also the highest rates of incarceration.

Abolition and survivor justice both require recognition of systemic, institutionalized state violence over individual acts made in isolation. We must recognize the violence of not only interpersonal acts of abuse, but also the violence of a state that spends over $100 billion on policing, while defunding shelters for victims, health care, housing, and education; the violence of a state that criminalizes the poor for stealing food to survive, while empowering corporations and billionaires to exploit and steal from poor workers en masse; the violence of a state where you can be imprisoned for life for poisoning a person, but esteemed and revered even after poisoning an entire, majority-Black city.

All of these aforementioned acts of state violence are inextricably bound to acts of interpersonal violence. Research shows that many victims of abuse are forced to stay in long-term relationships with abusers for survival, or their children’s survival — or risk losing health care, housing, and income. Abolition and survivor justice are both inherently anti-capitalist: Within a capitalist system, there is greater economic incentive to imprison and exploit victims of abuse than fund and provide them with life-saving resources and human rights, which certainly include health care and housing.

Restorative and transformative justice

There are no simple solutions to the crises we face — the crises of endemic sexual violence, and the inherent, white supremacist, anti-victim nature of the carceral, capitalist police state. But certainly, policing and incarceration can’t be the solution when they’re more likely to reproduce than alleviate harm: How, exactly, can prisons be considered a rehabilitative response to endemic sexual violence when prison rape rates are ever-increasing? Often, those who rely on faux-outrage and concern about sexual violence to prop up a system built to hurt victims are the same people who don’t believe victims when they do come forward.

As a solution to address the harms of sexual and domestic violence, as well as all forms of violence, abolition feminists teach about restorative justice and transformative justice. Restorative justice brings together the victim, perpetrator, and community to correct harm in a way that doesn’t reproduce the harm in question, while transformative justice requires us to proactively work to change the social conditions and systemic inequities that cause harm and crime to happen. Both restorative justice and transformative justice must go hand-in-hand, and center the well-being, healing, and needs of victims and the most vulnerable.

Notably, this year marks the 48th anniversary of Title IX, and universities including Stanford, Brown, Skidmore College, the Universities of Colorado, Michigan, and Kentucky, and the University of Vermont have all recently shifted to adopt restorative justice responses to campus sexual assault. The American Bar Association 2017 Task Force on College Due Process Rights and Victim Protections specifically recommended a shift toward restorative justice practices in response to endemic campus sexual assault crises nationwide.

Beyond universities, since the 1990s, the American Bar Association has endorsed victim-offender mediation, a program that draws on the restorative justice framework. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the European Union, all committed to promote restorative practices. The National Organization for Victim Assistance published a monograph entitled “Restorative Community Justice: A Call to Action,” in 1995.

Moving forward, survivor justice movements must not only align with abolitionist movements, but also proactively fight for redistribution of the massive resources and wealth poured into prisons and policing toward essential resources like supports for victims of abuse, health care, housing, education, and arguably even a liveable basic income.

A study of incarcerated women in Oregon found 76 percent had experienced sexual assault before turning 13, and their entrance in the sexual violence-to-prison pipeline is tied to lack of access to adequate resources to cope and heal from sexual trauma. Per research by the Urban Justice Center, 87 percent of sex workers — many of whom have experienced threats and sexual violence they are afraid to report to police — are homeless or in unstable housing situations and could become homeless at any time.

Survivor justice advocates must demand not only dismantling of the carceral institutions that criminalize and imprison the most vulnerable victims and survivors. We must also imagine and work toward a new system that ensures victims of abuse have the resources they need to be safe, healthy, and autonomous.

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