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Don’t Use Sexual Assault Survivors to Justify Police and Incarceration

Prison bars and hallway.

Protests across the country—in response to the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, and too many Black people before them—are exposing the devastating, anti-Black violence of the police state we live in. As a result, many people are finally starting to listen to discourse on police and prison abolition that once seemed far-fetched and call for their local governments to take crucial first steps to divest from police forces.

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It’s natural that many people still have questions, but all too often, we still hear the knee-jerk response to abolition: “What about rapists and abusers?”

So, let’s be clear about something: Victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence can’t be used as props to justify the need for policing and incarceration. No one can claim, in good faith, that policing and prisons are addressing our violent crisis of rape culture, when rape is so common in the very prisons that are supposedly rehabilitating offenders.

Many of us were raised to equate policing and incarceration with justice and protection for abuse victims, but research proves the opposite—that police and prison staff are more often the oppressors and abusers, rather than the protectors of victims of sexual violence.

Even with the police state we have in place, only 5 out of 1,000 rapists will wind up in prison, all while (at least) 40% of police officers are reportedly domestic abusers, and (at least) 60% of prison rapes are carried out by guards and staff. In too many devastating cases, police and prison staff are the abusers, capitalizing on their state power to harm rather than protect.

What makes these statistics even more jarring is that they could be skewed by vast underreporting. An estimated one in four women has experienced sexual assault—and these rates are higher for women of color and LGBTQ folks—and it’s also estimated that between 67 and 85 percent of sexual assaults are unreported. Then, of course, there’s the obvious fact that police officers can all too easily use their state power to hide and cover up their own acts of abuse, as they have in several documented cases.

Even with our current system of prisons and policing in place, the vast majority of sexual assailants and abusers are walking free—many of them possibly even working as police officers. Racial and economic privilege largely determine who is among those five incarcerated out of every 1,000 rapists and who is walking free, raising the question of whether the existence of prisons makes any of us much safer from sexual violence in our day-to-day lives. Our cultural imagination misrepresents most people behind bars as rapists and abusers, and most rapists and abusers as being behind bars, when in reality, it seems likely neither is true.

The majority of incarcerated people are imprisoned for so-called survival “crimes”—they’re often punished for growing up in a country where we invest drastically more in prisons and policing than in health care, education, housing, and other basic needs and resources. Meanwhile, white supremacy and our overarching, exploitative capitalist system have always shaped what we even define as a “crime”—arguably every cent billionaire capitalists make is from some degree of theft and exploitation, and nearly all the Wall Street bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crash that ruined countless lives didn’t spend a day in jail.

Within our current system, not only are most rapists and abusers free people, but 90 percent of incarcerated women, who are more likely to be Black women and women of color, are survivors of sexual violence themselves. Even if they aren’t incarcerated, victims and survivors are nearly always treated as criminal suspects and traumatized by police if they report, and not only are women and girls of color and LGBTQ people more likely to experience sexual violence, but they’re also more likely than their white counterparts to be targeted and criminalized by police.

Survivor justice movements can’t be co-opted by white supremacists and non-inclusive strains of white feminism that too often weaponize white femininity to demonize, incarcerate, and kill Black men and men of color. Just days before George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, in New York, a white woman was caught on video threatening to call the police on a Black man just for reminding her of park rules. The incident is part of a long, deadly history and ongoing trend of white femininity being weaponized to threaten, hurt, and demonize Black and brown men. Tying survivor justice to policing and incarceration ultimately puts us all at greater risk, and also serves as a violent tool to advance white supremacy.

None of this is to say it’s wrong or unnatural to be instinctively outraged by, say, Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, serving only three months in county jail. But a large part of that outrage should lie with the white privilege and white supremacy that produced Turner’s comparatively minimal sentence. The devastating reality is that when we demand our carceral society to be harsher, it’s far more likely Black people and people of color will shoulder the brunt of these harsher outcomes than their white counterparts.

Ultimately, as Chanel Miller writes in her memoir, Know My Name, Turner serving jail time isn’t what brought her healing, and many survivors have the same experience. Justice isn’t selectively locking up a rapist here and there but not others, often at great cost to the survivor and without providing them with the meaningful resources and support they need to heal.

No one can speak for all survivors, and many may conceive of justice in different ways, but justice certainly isn’t using those who have experienced sexual violence as a go-to, politically convenient shield to defend police and prisons—not when these institutions are inextricably rooted in survivors’ trauma and harm.

(image: meesh on Flickr)

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