Earlier this week, the Daily News reported that a Cowlitz County, Washington survivor of an alleged kidnapping and sexual assault, perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend and an accomplice, was jailed when she refused to cooperate with the prosecutors on the case. The story didn’t rise to the forefront of feminist news until feminist writer Amanda Marcotte wrote a defense of the decision, arguing that the County did what it had to do to stop future violence.
The Cowlitz County case is awful, and I disagree with Marcotte’s conclusion, but neither is really an aberration from how we view criminal justice and victimhood. Two worrying parts of Marcotte’s piece implicate our larger national conversation about sexual violence: we mistakenly think survivors are irrational girls rather than agents navigating impossible obstacles – but, simultaneously, that they have more responsibility to us than we have to them.
Running through Marcotte’s piece is a common threads I hear in discussions of survivors of intimate partner: a belief that the abused are irrational. We see this assumption in the pathologization of “battered women’s syndrome,” where survivors’ self-defense is understood as a symptom of delusion. We see it in the patronizing explanations of “why they stay” that talk about women (always women) untethered from reality, tumbling without agency through cycles of abuse. We see it, too, in Marcotte’s characterization of the victim’s relationship with the defendant as a sort of blinder, distorting her view of the violence and so discouraging her from working with the prosecutors:
Research shows that a victim’s refusal to cooperate with a prosecution is more about her relationship to the abuser. In this particular case, the victim has a long-standing history with one of her attackers, which suggests that she probably doesn’t see this in the same way that someone kidnapped and assaulted by complete strangers would. While there are some interventions that can help reduce the problem of victims who recant out of these complex feelings, there’s no silver bullet of counseling that will get all victims to see things the way prosecutors want them to.
We don’t know if the survivor in this particular case was abused by her ex-boyfriend when they were together, so the analogy to research on intimate partner violence may not be relevant here at all. But the rhetoric is nonetheless eerily similar – and similarly destructive. Of course we hope victims leave and, if desired, take action to ensure their future safety and to hold their abusers accountable. But to pretend that survivors stay or refuse to cooperate with the police only because of “complex feelings” simultaneously ignores the very real restraints on their freedom and denies them the agency they’ve maintained.
Manipulation and emotional abuse can create undeniable psychological barriers to leaving or seeking help. These obstacles are no less real because they are not tangible; though they are complex and they are intimately felt, Marcotte’s characterization of these burdens as “complex feelings” belies their nearly physical weight. But we also must recognize the undeniable material barriers survivors face. For example, abuse often renders survivors financially dependent on their abusers (we can’t know if the survivor was dependent on he boyfriend in this case, but we do know she is now homeless). And a trademark of relationship abuse is isolation – as a result of the abuse, survivors often don’t have friends or family to whom they feel they can turn for help. To make matters worse, abusers often charm those closest to the victim, so that those who do reach out for support or who pursue prosecution are often met with disbelief and anger from those they love. Tragically, in these situations, the decision to stay or to forgo legal intervention may be the result of an impossible, but by no means irrational, calculus. The options and risks are unjust, but the agent isn’t erased.
We urgently need to change that calculus. It is essential that we provide professional and community services to help victims of IPV leave abusive relationships. That work is so important precisely because the restraints on survivors are more than just “feelings” — whether psychological or material barriers, they are very, very real.
So, too, are the reasons why most survivors don’t trust the criminal justice system to help them out. As I’ve written about previously, those who report to the police are more likely to find insensitivity or harassment than a conviction: is it really such a shocker that victims don’t want to cooperate with a system willing to lock them up, to criminalize their survival? Plus, while I definitely know some survivors comfortable with the prison system, others see incarceration as just another iteration of the violence they work to end.
Maybe victims don’t “see things the way prosecutors want them to” because they aren’t blind to the violence in their communities and in our criminal justice system that, yes, complicate the decision to cooperate with the prosecution of your ex. We should talk about what responses to interpersonal violence would look like in our feminist state, but that’s not the conversation we’re having here. Now we’re talking about how real people navigate real choices. And we can’t pretend real obstacles don’t exist.
You owe us
Marcotte writes that “always erring on the side of victim sensitivity means putting some very bad men back out on the streets, where they will likely attack someone else.” I 100% agree that stopping perpetrators can help prevent future violence, which is one of the reasons I think it’s so important to provide survivors with safe, trauma-responsive accountability processes. The calculus, though, doesn’t have to boil down to us vs. her, our safety weighed against her comfort, because robust responses to violence centralize support for survivors as a collective responsibility that promotes the common good.
On the most basic level: I thought we’d been over this before: violence is caused by the violent, not short skirts or alcohol or confusion or, at least of all, victims. We usually talk about victim-blaming as putting the responsibility not to get raped on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators. However, we see a similar logic in the insistence that it’s survivor’s job to stop violence against others, even at the expense of their own healing and safety. If they won’t make that sacrifice, we’re prepared to punish them. As much as the U.S. criminal justice system likes to pretend it can distinguish between imprisonment as punishment and imprisonment as logistical aid (see: pretrial detention), all time spent behind bars is punitive.
Also, even if you buy the carceral logic that prisons are our great hope, locking up survivors who report won’t help the courts catch rapists. As Melissa McEwan wrote at Shakesville, “If we’re really concerned about preventing future assaults, then we have to foremostly make it safe for multiple survivors to report—and publicly revictimizing one survivor in this way stands to discourage multiple victims from reporting. That is bigger than even this one rapist.” McEwan’s point rejects Marcotte’s belief that the interests of survivors and interests of the broader community are in tension: we are only safe as a whole when we support survivors. It is only then that victims can come forward and give us the chance to hold perpetrators accountable.
Stepping back, I resent the way this issue has been framed, both in media and private discussions, as one of individual vs. collective safety – as though survivors are unwilling to talk due to some deep selfishness – not only because its wrong but because it distracts us from the communal duty we’re so eager to ignore. Of course any feminist resistance to violence requires collective responsibility for the collective good. But our first question here should be what we, as a community, can do to support a survivor – not what the survivor should do to help us. What local structures can we set up to provide care to those who need it? How can we create safe opportunities for survivors to come forward? What community responses to harm can we build to hold abusers accountable in a country that has abandoned victims to a broken criminal justice system? Let’s talk about what we can do, rather than what any given survivor owes us.
Here’s the thing about violence: it’s hard to stop. That’s scary. I find it terrifying that we really, truly have not yet found ways to stop assault or abuse, or structures to respond to this violence when it occurs. I understand why many hold on to our belief in the criminal justice system when there aren’t alternatives onto which we can comfortably fall. I understand why we want to believe we live in a country where a victim would of course want to cooperate with prosecutors. I understand the temptation to count conviction rates and the clang of prison doors shutting closed like beads on a rosary, the comfort of pieces moving regularly, as they should, as though we’re going somewhere better. But when the methodical plodding ends with a survivor of violence in jail for choosing to deal with trauma on her own terms, perhaps its time we lose a little faith and rise up to do some good.