Issues for movement against sexual violence


Book Review: Kristin Bumiller, “In An Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence” (Durham, N.C.:  Duke University Press, 2008).

On Feb. 14, the streaming videos of the flashmobs of young women determined to claim a violence-free life set my feminist heart to humming. But the hum quieted a bit for me on Feb. 27, a date just two weeks after the One Billion Rising global day of action against violence against women, when the New York City Council passed a resolution demanding that the city settle a decade-old lawsuit for damages filed by those Black and Latino youth unjustly convicted and sent to prison for the gang rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989.

The city council resolution was a too sharp reminder of the way that U.S. elites have for centuries used the hot-button issue of sexual violence to divide and conquer and as a tool to deepen the systematic repression of the Black community.

The sentences of these youth were vacated in 2002, but by that time some of them had served over a decade in prison. The Central Park Jogger rape trial was the occasion for one of the most hysterical and deliberately racist prosecutorial media campaigns since the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. It was fairly compared to the campaign to convict the nine Scottsboro Boys of raping two white women in 1931 in Alabama.

The prosecution painted a deliberately terrifying picture of the urban youth of New York as a pack of animals who roamed the city “wilding” and enacting senseless sexual brutality upon the civilized of the metropolis. Kristin Bumiller, author of “An Abusive State,” calls this prosecutorial gambit “expressive justice,” a tool often used by the coercive state to legitimate an expansion of policing.

The five young Central Park Jogger defendants, all 14 to 16 years of age, were found guilty, even though there was no forensic evidence linking them to the crime, by means of confessions coerced during 14-30 hours of interrogation. The seriously injured female victim was in a coma for much of the trial—an absence that could be filled as needed by the prosecution to further sensationalize its case. Because she was a white, petite investment banker, the state and the compliant media were able to use her identity to create a racialized fear campaign, the type of campaign known as a “sex panic.”

The vast majority of rapes are not committed by strangers in public places, but the Central Park Jogger trial resulted in the public acquiescing to the NYPD’s move to use all the tools at its disposal to further criminalize youth of color and their communities as a whole. It was a classic reenactment of the traditional way in which race, class, and gender divides are used to strengthen the powers that be.

The coming together of the news of the Central Park lawsuit and One Billion Rising’s celebration of the March 5 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), should be the occasion for all activists to think deeply about the most effective strategy to end sexual violence. The exhilaration felt by feminists when for a few weeks violence against women was mainstream news around the world must be complemented by a very sober analysis of the challenges before us.

Is the VAWA, a bill developed in line with other crime bills, the best tool for defending ourselves against sexual violence? Or does the mass incarceration strategy on which it relies lead us away from what is really needed?

The struggle to renew the Violence Against Women Act was posed by most liberal feminist groups, including One Billion Rising, as a victory against the retrograde politicians of the Republican Party and just plain common sense. To watch the media coverage, one would not know that professional counselors have had grave misgivings regarding VAWA for many years. In 2007, more than a dozen domestic violence experts submitted a white paper on the impact of the VAWA and documented the fact that between 1994 and 2007, there was little evidence that domestic violence, as a percentage of all violence, had decreased at all. Others charged that it was a mere “granting” bill.

There was an even more important subterranean dissatisfaction being expressed by radicalizing women activists and survivors of domestic violence. Kristin Bumiller interviewed many of them as part of her research for “In An Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence.”

The difficulty of finding the feminist critique of VAWA is a product, according to Bumiller, of the way that the shelter system, and all the other ancillary elements of the package of services now available to victims of battering, have been bound with a thousand funding strings to the criminal justice system in all its forms. Those who have found the space to speak out tell a painful story.

During the height of the Second Wave of feminism in the late 1960s, activists initiated groundbreaking campaigns to draw attention to the hidden and often ignored range of violence against women. They connected these campaigns to self-help initiatives designed to create safe and empowering spaces for women.

According to Bumiller, these shelters were movement-building affairs organized democratically and non-hierarchically. In these spaces, women functioning collectively could heal and prepare for the future by coming to see the violence they had endured as part of a larger system oppressing women. Services were linked to building a political fightback.

As the mass movement dissipated and funding become difficult, the services provided by these groups remained in great demand. In time, most shelters and rape crisis centers in need of grants found themselves moving “to the terrain of the state,” as Bumiller describes it.  Many groups were able to maintain a feminist identity, but in order to secure stable funding they became enmeshed with the courts, cops, and government social service agencies in ways that are problematic at best.

At the same time, the criminal justice system was growing by leaps and bounds, and the state took advantage of the new consensus about the importance of meeting the needs of domestic violence and rape victims to create their own projects.

Government regulation, Bumiller argues, now required women leaving violent situations to apply for state benefits to demonstrate their commitment to “self-sufficiency.” Entering into the welfare system, however, entwines women with probate court actions concerning child custody, paternity hearings, child protective services, and state involvement with school officials. An ever-increasing set of government agencies, who often view indigent victims of battering with suspicion or even malice, suddenly became involved in the lives of every battered woman who sought shelter.

The VAWA led to, first, mandatory arrest, and later, “pro-arrest” policies for police called to sites of domestic violence. If the aggressor could not be determined, police arrested and charged both men and women, leading to a growing incarceration rate for both genders. Women who were found defending themselves against abusers were charged as well. In short, violence against women became a facet of crime control in a period of economic slowdown when the state felt the need to initiate the dramatic new level of social control that has become known as mass incarceration.

And while a lack of “self-sufficiency” can result in a battered woman being humiliated and punitively regulated by a multi-faceted social welfare system, there has been no equal Congressional attention to the problem of women’s segregation into low wage jobs in a nation with less childcare than ever before. A jobs program that provided employment and a child-care system that allowed women to go to work would naturally allow them to leave abusers without becoming subject to what Bumiller calls “the alternative patriarchy of the state.”

Objectively speaking, Bumiller demonstrates, legislative advances in response to violence against women have been, at best, a dubious proposition for the most vulnerable segment of the female population. Liberal feminism, she suggests, mistakenly chose to treat sexual violence, not as an outcome of the overall need of the system to keep women vulnerable as a reserve army of labor and dependent on an individual man for her survival and that of her children, but as the result of gender-based discrimination by the cops and the courts.

This “discrimination” approach was a winner in Congress, an institution that has rarely seen a crime control bill that it did not like, but is starting to seem like a loser to more and more women in the know. While Bumiller offers no blueprint for the mass women’s movement we must develop, she provides a cautionary tale for those committed to building one.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action


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