“You’re not a rape victim unless the police say you are.”

Posted: April 16, 2010 in activism, anti-racism, feminism, rape

Brownfemipower has a great guest post up on Feministe about citizenship and sexual assault. I can’t possibly do it justice with a summary, so I recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing.

I found this bit particularly poignant: “[Ending sexual violence] will require taking a good long look at what many feminists are deeply invested in: a nation/state response to sexual violence.” This is painfully apt in that quite a lot of anti-rape activism assumes that there is, and should be, a place for the criminal justice system at the table of proposed solutions. We struggle over how to make the police and the courts more responsive to sexual assault, how to support victims through the process of reporting and trial, how to draw media attention to abysmally low conviction rates. But these methods offer no recourse to the women most susceptible to sexual violence: those designated as illegal—whether in the technical or figurative sense—by the state. And as BFP points out, that designation, in addition to excluding them from traditional (read: white, middle-class) avenues of obtaining justice, also renders them vulnerable to state violence (including re-victimization should they report their assaults).

Of further concern is that when the system is responsive, it’s often in the service of destroying communities of color. Turns out that relying on a white-supremacist and patriarchal system to administer justice to victims of white supremacy and patriarchy is darkly ironic at best.

I think there’s some recognition of this in mainstream feminist activism. I know my advocacy training touched on the additional barriers faced by immigrants and women of color in seeking services. It was framed as a bit of consciousness-raising to get us to think about why, for example, not every victim of violence would jump at the chance to get the police involved. And most activists have a vague understanding of the limitations of the justice system, if only because we see how it fails even the “good” victims.

But these issues were presented as largely tangential; there was no real in-depth criticism of our approach as a whole. There was no discussion of whether our investment in making the criminal justice system more responsive to sexual violence might actually serve to reify said system’s power and, by doing so, increase the vulnerability of the populations both excluded and targeted by it. A courtroom victory is seen as a triumph by activists, but doesn’t that just legitimize the role of the state in meting out justice?

There have always been people excluded from that system, and they’ve had no choice but to develop their own methods of recourse and survival, e.g. models of community/restorative justice, or the testimonios BFP mentions in her post. But these forms of activism receive little recognition by mainstream organizations working to end sexual violence. I’m a certified sexual assault advocate, and I’d never heard of them until I started reading bloggers like BFP. In this as in so many things, we white feminists tailor our approach to the women who look like us, at the expense of the women who don’t.

And thus we become complicit in the same system we claim to want to destroy.

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