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The conversation in our feminist and justice movements about violence against women and the conversation about mass incarceration seem to be happening in separate spaces, anti-sexism and anti-racism spaces respectively. The experiences and voices of women of color make it clear that sexism and racism are intersecting oppressions,  but how do they intersect, in this time, on these urgent issues?

I was inspired to try to explore the relationship by reading a blog about rape, followed the next day by the same blogger responding to comments implying that false rape accusations are as serious a problem as rape.

With deep gratitude toward the blogger for bringing to light the horrifying extent of rape and rape culture in our society, I think a missing dimension in the discussion is solutions. We have a bloated, racist, sexist criminal justice system that serves everyone badly: women who have been raped or are at risk for rape (that’s all of us); men who are falsely accused of rape, men who actually do rape, and the low income and people of color communities that are most impacted as both victims and prison fodder. There has to be a better way.

The U.S. has by far the highest rate of imprisonment, and greatest number of prisoners (2.3 million), in the world. The majority are people of color, and almost all are people of low income. Injustice and cruelty exist at every level of the process, and speak to the fundamentally racist underlying purpose of the criminal justice system, which is not to actually serve justice — much less to protect us as women from sexual assault — but to uphold inequality by keeping communities of color poor, repressed, and in prison.

Historically, one of the most horrific tools of that repression has been false charges of rape against Black men used as an excuse for lynching.  The legacy of that time continues today as a public narrative that portrays  men of color as sexually predatory and pathologically violent, a narrative that is used to justify locking up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.

The criminal justice system doesn’t care about us as women, white, Black, or brown. It uses us to bolster the narrative that men of color are dangerous violent predators. Therefore, the solutions it offers  do not do us any good, do not treat us with any respect, and do not protect us from violence, because they aren’t intended to. They are intended to use us as a cover for a revenge-based mass incarceration system that throws away the lives of poor people and people of color.

As a result, some white men get away with actions that men of color get locked up for, including rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, because they are white. At every stage of the criminal justice process, people of color fare worse under identical circumstances — more likely to be stopped, charged, indicted, imprisoned. Where that leaves us as women is that the system is not looking to find and mete out justice to our attackers and rapists, it is looking to jail men (and women) of color. The white men who do get caught and punished by the system are the collateral damage of a system not primarily intended for them — or they are disproportionately punished for being poor, alongside people of color.

And for those men and boys of any race who commit abuse, rape, or battering, none of them get anything that would change their behavior in a way that would protect our communities, save us from further abuse, and save their humanity as well.

The anti-rape blog got a lot of powerful supportive comments and testimony, but also got a lot of comments about false rape charges – so many that the blogger stopped posting them because she felt they were feeding into the widespread cultural dismissal and disbelief of women’s reports of rape. The issue of false rape charges, whether they are many or few, would be less alarming in a system that was designed for fairness, justice, compassion, and rehabilitation. That isn’t the system we have. Instead we have a system that, paradoxically, disbelieves and dismisses rape survivors, can’t distinguish between real and false, fails to hold many perpetrators accountable while punishing some who are innocent and others too harshly, and all completely unequally by race and class.

The society’s single-minded focus of attention and resources on the criminal justice system, pretending it is the solution to violence against women, means there is very little serious conversation about what could actually help. The culture of rape is a societal problem, not primarily an individual one, and we need societal solutions — individually calling on individual men not to rape is not enough. Calling on the criminal justice system for more punishment does not help and runs the risk of giving even greater power to the law enforcement forces which are devastating communities of color, including women of color, without really addressing any of the root causes of rape and sexual violence.

But what are the alternatives? That is the conversation that our feminist communities can lead. Do we, can we, build  parallel justice structures ourselves, in our own communities, or demand that the existing system serve our needs better — or both?


There are some attempts to address the problem differently. One poster mentions educating boys in Canada, not one by one but in a mass social campaign; this is pointing in a positive direction. An infusion of social resources into educating boys and men would start by looking at what works, developing pilot programs, and building from there. That’s at the front end, the best place to begin. But at the back end too, there is an urgent need to build programs that work to change boys and men who have committed violence and sexual violence against women. Yes, accountability and consequences. No, not more mass incarceration in a brutal and violent system that makes people more violent and teaches them that might makes right.

Bringing the violence against women out into the light, and supporting women survivors, is  priceless work. Nothing can proceed without it. In tandem with that we need to look at solutions.

It seems clear that we need community-based preventive, restorative, and rehabilitative solutions incorporating feminist and anti-racist principles that value every human life. But what does that mean in practice? How do we get there? Are there any positive models?

Calling all feminists: Can we have those conversations?


  1. Enewkirk says:

    After 6 years of college and graduate school, all in the field of women’s studies, I still struggle with conversations about rape. My partner is a kind, smart, and sharp individual, and he’s been able to engage in deep feminist conversations with me, but I just can’t open up to talk about rape at all with him.

    I recently discovered that one of the reasons we haven’t had this conversation is because I don’t feel comfortable having it in public (we usually talk about everything at diners or over coffee). Another reason is I don’t want to lose respect for this man I love if he gets tied up in rape-culture language, and it doesn’t feel like there are any safe spaces to talk about rape. Thank you for starting this conversation.

  2. John Dewar Gleissner says:

    Mass incarceration represents the end stage of a failed social experiment, namely trying to rehabilitate people in prison. It does not work that way, it only incapacitates, and actually makes the problem worse. 93% of inmates are male. Most rapists are “serial rapists,” sex offenders who are difficult to convict and police. To both end mass incarceration and stop rapists at the same time, judicial corporal punishment is needed. It has worked nearly everywhere they’ve tried it, and as horrendous as it is, it is not as bad and harmful as prison. In the case of sex offenders, chemical and surgical castration work without the necessity of prison — and many sex offenders are terrified of going to prison. In Saudi Arabia, cutting hands off ends theft, but the surprise is that they cut off very few hands every decade. It’s time for a paradigm shift.