A broadside against feminism’s relationship with mass incarceration and the state recently made the rounds. The basic premise is on point, but its articulation is in a few ways sloppy and troubling.
The first problem comes when the author refers to the unjust prosecution of a daycare worker as part of a “sex panic.” Definitionally, even an ungrounded terror of sexual malfeasance by daycare workers is not a “sex panic,” but a sexual abuse panic. The difference between the phenomena of sexual relations and sexual abuse is one of most basic concessions sought by various anti-violence movements; it’s an odd and unnecessary show of bad faith to conflate the two.
It is an even stranger show of bad faith if you call to mind particular communities scarred by sexual abuse. The Catholic Church has a historically fraught relationship with sex. Should we conclude that fear and trauma over rampant and hushed-up priestly abuse is part of a “sex panic?,” or that outrage over two 30 year old teachers sexually exploiting a 16 year old is merely the replacement of the emancipatory sexual revolution with the “armor of victimhood?”
In her eagerness to make a confused and confusing distinction about “victimhood” vs. “liberation,” the author stumbles over any difference between decrying a response to crime and denying the seriousness of the crime itself. This, in the end, weakens her argument: if the problem is not the machinery of mass incarceration, but its participation in a series of groundless sexual hysterias, it is not clear why the carceral state is itself the problem.
It also undercuts the possibility of achieving justice through non-carceral means. In her conclusion she cites two cases clearly meant to demonstrate the absurd and horrifying reach of punitive responses to sexual assault. One of them is a six year old labelled a sexual harasser for “stealing a kiss.” A heavily punitive response to an offense by a child is seriously wrong, but the way Wypijewski described the incident is irresponsible. Both the mother of the child and the school confirmed that unwanted kissing and touching was a repeated, deliberate pattern that was impinging on the girl’s ability to participate in school. Arguably, a transformative justice approach would recognize that patterns of domination are learned and normalized early, and work to uproot and re-make said patterns within a community; not only for the sake of the little girl who was afraid of her classmates, but as a response to society-wide sexual violence. Careful and dedicated work alone can make the particulars of this kind of justice a reality, but the trivializing power of the phrase “stolen kiss” is as much an impediment as a carceral framework.
If dismissing victims of violence only short-circuits a call for a more totalizing justice, it also misses one of the most salient critiques of the prison industrial complex. Wypijewski argues that “sex is not special.” In the sense she seems mostly to mean the statement, it is true. Sexual violence does not uniquely necessitate or find restoration in cruel and violent responses, whatever the revenge porn genre might say. But in another sense sexual assault is special–in the sense that violence, and intimate violence, holds a more terrible place in the human capacity for evil than other offenses. Part of the horror of Kalief Browder’s story is surely that we immiserate humans in cages at all, but another is that we cage them for such petty misconduct.
Sexual violence is indeed especially terrible. Wypijewski reminds us of the reality of sexual assaults in prison, but never makes the explicit connection that the prison industrial complex is itself a massive state-run project of sexual violence, and therefore as deserving of feminist attention, and on the same grounds, as other culprits. She states that sex (always sex, never sexual abuse) has been “almost as instrumental in this nightmare state as racism.” As far as I can tell, this is questionable on the merits. At the state level, 12 percent of sentenced state inmates were serving time for rape or assault in 2013. 38 percent of said inmates were black, and 21 percent were Latino, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Underplaying the absolute centrality of violent white supremacy to the creation of mass incarceration seems a mistake, but so is positing sexual and gender violence and state violence as two competing and counterbalancing phenomena. State violence is sexual and gender violence, especially for black women, targeted as prostitutes, forcibly sterilized, pursued and raped by cops, raped by prison guards, imprisoned for being the victims of domestic abuse, imprisoned for trying to leave their abuser. It is sexual violence for Native American women, for whom the centuries old colonial state has meant unending rape with impunity by white men. It is sexual violence for migrant women, brutalized and raped in deportation centers. And it is sexual violence for men of color, whose threatening black male bodies can never be truly victimized; not when they are raped in prison, and not when they lie dead in the street.
Sexual, gender, and intimate violence is not only particularly evil, but it holds a unique historical role as an especially cruel and dehumanizing component of the United States’ brutal subjugation of black and brown bodies.
Wipijewski, I am sure, knows this all, and mentions some of it in her essay; she is fighting a good fight for a righteous and urgent cause. But her piece unintentionally replicates the most damning sin of carceral white feminism: a failure to clearly see state violence as precisely indistinguishable from sexual. A lack of focus means that it is unclear whether the target is “victimhood” or “sex panic” or a sexually violent state, and whether the remedy entails abandoning feminist concerns, or expanding them to include and prioritize the most marginal.