Friday, August 24, 2007

Feminism and prisons

There's a really interesting post at Feministe on tensions between feminist attitudes towards violence against women and a radical (or liberal, or progressive) analysis of the prison system. It's certainly been a tension I've felt as I've cheered some men being locked-up (Brad Shipton and John Dewar) and despaired when others were let free (Clint Rickards). Bean quotes from Daniel Lazare's discussion of Marie Gottschalk's book:

Gottschalk’s assault on ’70s feminism is sure to raise the most eyebrows. She argues that the women’s movement helped facilitate the carceral state by promoting a punitive approach to sexual violence that was unmitigated by any larger political considerations. This single-minded focus led to what The Prison and the Gallows describes as unsavory coalitions with tough-on-crime types. In the State of Washington, women’s groups successfully marketed rape reform as a law-and-order issue so that, when the measure finally passed in 1975, it was “in part by riding on the coattails of a new death penalty statute.”
I don't think any coalition between anti-rape activism and law-and-order types is necessary, but I don't think it's the responsibility of anti-rape activists to make sure our work doesn't get co-opted.

I was listening to the radio today and heard that the supreme court had allowed the appeal of a man who had murdered his wife and one of the reasons was because the judge in the case had wrongly said that the defence of provocation isn't available if someone had decided to kill someone else. I said to myself "Jeez didn't the judge know that a defence of provocation is always available when a man kills his sexual partner?" (for full details the supreme court decision is available in pdf

The hate the provocation defence - I am sick of hearing 'the bitch asked for it'. But here's the thing - ultimately I don't want Laxman Rajamani to be in jail. I don't believe in jail. I don't think the threat of jail stops men being violent against women. I think violent men who go into jail almost all come out more violent. I don't think the protection that while in jail violent men are mostly only going to be violent to other men is enough for a system that churns out men more violent than they go in.

So when I argue that the provocation defence should be scrapped, or talk about the defences that should not be available to rapists, I'm not arguing that because I think these men should be in prison. I'm arguing against these defences because I think they do real damage to women, either individually as witnesses in trials, or collectively as rape myths and women-as-property is all throughout the court and media.

I think feminists need to continue standing up against our court system, and the way it values women's words and women's lives, but we need to do so from a stand-point that the current justice system offers abused women almost nothing.*

The article bean quoted seemed to run together non-state actions against rapists, with the war on crime:
In Berkeley, antirape activists picketed an accused rapist’s home. In East Lansing in 1973, they “reportedly scrawled Rapist on a suspect’s car, spray-painted the word across a front porch and made warning telephone calls late at night.”
To which I say "Awesome". I believe that the most powerful women have against rapists isn't prison or the state (which will not act in our interests), but naming.

* In my original version of this post I included this sentence: "As a friend joked, when I talked about this tension: "The correct political position is that they should let Brad Shipton out of jail so we can lynch him." One of the dangers of writing on the internet is that words can have very different historical and political meaning in different places. I know enough about American history that I shouldn't have included that sentence.


  1. Thought you might be interested in (and disgusted by) this article from the UK:

    A management consultant branded his wife with a hot steam iron because she had failed to press his shirt.

    Cambridge graduate Colin Read, 25, also slashed her with a knife because she had forgotten to make his sandwiches.

    But the £90,000-a-year executive walked free from court - with just a £2,000 fine.
    A report recommended a community service order, but Recorder William Featherby questioned how Read would fit it in around his long working hours.

    He said he was concerned that Read had denied the offences despite overwhelming evidence and he called the iron attack "appalling".

    But the judge said it was the circumstances of the marriage that had provoked Read and that now those circumstances had gone, sending him to prison would "help no one".

  2. Anonymous8:37 pm

    I really like how you advocate that the accused should be subject to harassment. Obviously concepts like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the bedrock of our criminal justice system and a check against the coercive powers of the state should be thrown out. This is probably one of the most foolish things you have written and it shows just how little knowledge of the law you actually have. This is not feminism your are advocating but vigilante justice with the victims guilt being decided on the basis that they are men. Kind of like the lynchings in Southern Confederate states where blacks were hanged because they were black

  3. Anonymous12:30 am

    I was agreeing pretty strongly with you up until this point:

    "The correct political position is that they should let Brad Shipton out of jail so we can lynch him."

    And after that it went a bit pear-shaped. After you spent the first part of your post arguing against a punitive approach, this still seems quite punitive. What guarantee do you have that this would succeed where the judicial system fails?

  4. I do like the idea of violent, scofflaw feminist lynch mobs. It appeals to my angry, violent side and reminds me that women aren't actually inherently nicer than men, they're just socialised a bit differently. I need that sometimes.

    It will also make it so much harder for anyone to argue that defendants should be named by the court that I expect they'd give up. There would also be a new defence - "she threatened to name me as a male which would open me to revenge attacks, so I killed her".

    Please don't respond with the "this is just fantasy" defence... why is it any more acceptable for you to post such things than for anyone else?

  5. The correct political position is that they should let Brad Shipton out of jail so we can lynch him.

    I think it's pretty contradictory for you to have squeed really hard about Angela Davis and then ignored one of her most basic arguments from Women, Race and Class about the insidious politics of lynching. I won't repeat the whole argument, but suffice it to say, black feminists and radical women of color have been arguing these points for a long time, and have developed community-based strategies for responding to violence. Unfortunately, Bfp's old blogspot blog has been deleted, but she did put up a long discussion of community-based responses to violence that women of color in the USA have come up with. I can't seem to find it on or anywhere else, but I did link it in the first Carnival of Radical Action.

    Here's some of her discussion about the broader issues, though.

  6. I live in New Zealand where lynching does not have the same historical/political meaning that it does in America. Given that this is the internet I should have either not used the joke, or phrased it slightly differently.

    "I won't repeat the whole argument, but suffice it to say, black feminists and radical women of color have been arguing these points for a long time, and have developed community-based strategies for responding to violence."

    I don't know how you feel coming from Australia, but I think it's too easy here in NZ, to take strategies that have worked overseas and automatically assume they will work here. Although you are talking about something very different from what's happened in Brad Shipton's case

  7. The very meaning of the term "lynching" comes from the USA. Saying that it has a "different" meaning in NZ is obfuscation -- the only meaning it has ever had comes from US history. There is no other context for the term to have acquired meaning.

    I think it's too easy here in NZ, to take strategies that have worked overseas and automatically assume they will work here.

    I never assumed that, it was you who read it into my words. I brought up those strategies because you've ignored a strong feminist tradition of actual community-based activism around sexual assault, which does deal with the prison system, to make a very grand, overblown, and offensive statement about "lynching". It's rather biased of you to use that term, on the one hand, and then dismiss any consideration of US women of color activism on the other.

  8. Firefly - I meant that when people in New Zealand use the term 'lynching' it's not infused with the racial and power dynamics. It's been decontextualised from it's original meaning. It can be used to describe any sort of murder (real or imagined) by a group of people. A powerless person, like my friend, can talk of 'lynching' a more powerful person, like Brad Shipton - which is contrary to the history of the term. If I'd thought about the meaning and history of the word I either wouldn't have posted the anecdote about my friend, or changed the wording of what she said.

    In terms of community response I think we're talking about two totally different things (my fault, because I wasn't clear). When I was writing this post, I was thinking specifically about rapes that at the moment the police might prosecute with any hope of conviction. I was trying to ask 'what do feminists gain from the prison system and is it worth it?' I think the answers to that question are 'almost nothing' and 'no'. I was thinking about what this meant for anti-rape action, concentrating on cases that currently come before the courts. Obviously those cases tend to be more likely to be the sorts of cases where community-based approaches would be least likely to be possible or effective (since courts and police take stranger rape far more seriously than acquaintance rape, and so on).

    My thinking on all these cases is informed by the police rape trials that have been happened in New Zealand over the last few years, and how the court system has and hasn't worked, and how few other options we have. Brad Shipton used the fact that he was a police officer to rape with impunity for god knows how long. He wrote the phone number of a woman, and the object he penetrated her with, down in his diary. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that he had raped over 100 women. He had power over all those women, because he was a police officer, and there was no-one they could turn to. Now, two decades later, some of those women came forward and described their experiences. He was jailed for one rape, and found not guilty of two more.

    The joke my friend made wasn't an off-hand comment, it wasn't grand or overblown (although I can see I made it offensive by taking it outside the context in which hte comment was made). It is a very real response to the harm he has done.

    I absolutely believe that community based responses are part of the solution. I've been pretty close to some attempts and I know some of the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. But I think they're only part of the solution. They're absolutely not the solution to the Brad Shipton shaped part of the problem. I'm not suggesting that murder is the solution to the Brad Shipton shaped part of the problem, but the desire to kill him is an emotional response I understand.

  9. Going back and forth over the question of national context is contradictory to your own points in the OP -- which are taken from a US feminist site, and a book about US "second wave" feminism. If the insights of Daniel Lazare and Marie Gottschalk are applicable to a NZ/antipodean context, why aren't the insights of US radical women of color?

    I think you're still missing my point about US women of color's activism around sexual violence. Your post isn't just about Brad Shipton (unless you want to argue that Laxman Rajamani is the same as Shipton), it's about all kinds of men in a range of social positions, whose incarceration can often be a part of a classist and racist state apparatus. As US women of color have argued for decades, both the criminal justice system and vigilante justice have caused a great deal of harm to working class communities of color; advocating it promotes injustice and inequality between women. Moreover, rape and assault by police and state officials (e.g. border security personnel) is a HUGE issue that US women of color take on all the time and they have done a lot of work in this area.

    It is in that context that I read your conclusion: "I believe that the most powerful women have against rapists isn't prison or the state (which will not act in our interests), but naming." and felt it lacking, so I pointed you to some of the online resources that consider the existing work done by US woc in this area, and which diversifies the field beyond the false homogeneity projected onto gender by white feminists.

    I don't have any substantial disagreement with your criticisms of the criminal justice system except for what you've suggested as a response to it.