prison not feminist

Rape Jokes Aren’t Feminist, and Neither is Our Criminal System

This week, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing over 160 women in his former capacity as the doctor for the USA Gymnastics team. The case has drawn attention to the pervasive culture of sexual abuse and institutional coverups in American gymnastics. In the past few days, news coverage has also focused on the actions of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who devoted seven days of the trial to ensuring that each of the victims had a chance to address the court. In response, the New York Times called her “a fierce victim’s advocate” and Bustle named her a  “feminist icon.”

The testimony of the 165 survivors who shared their stories in court is moving and powerful. It’s rare in our society for survivors to have the opportunity to directly confront their perpetrators — and rarer still for those who have perpetrated sexual violence to be asked to listen to the impact that violence has had on those who experienced it. Truth-telling as part of the justice process has its origins in South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth & Reconciliation Commission and in indigenous practices. Allowing victims to name the harm they have experienced, be supported by those around them, and confront perpetrators if they choose is important, particularly when, as in this case, the victims have been silenced by powerful people for so long. Nassar, and the community of people who enabled him, should have an obligation to listen.

Even as we value the creation of a space for survivors to confront their perpetrators, we can and should be critical of the broader structure in which this particular instance of truth-telling occurred: the criminal system.

In 2018, it should be news to no one that the U.S. criminal legal system is fundamentally violent, racist, and unjust. It doesn’t protect marginalized people or sexual violence survivors (and it wasn’t designed to). Instead, the legal system consistently punishes survivors of color for defending themselves from abusers. And the prison system itself fosters and perpetuates sexual violence: police and prison guards routinely rape and terrorize low-income communities of color and LGBTQ people. In a survey of incarcerated LGBTQ people, 100% of LGBTQ respondents said they had experienced abusive strip searches, and were six times more likely than straight incarcerated people to be sexually assaulted in prison.

All that makes it particularly disturbing that, on the first day of sentencing, Judge Aquilina said:

Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls ― these young women in their childhood ― I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.

Judge Aquilina’s comments — implying that sentencing Nassar to rape would be justice served — are reprehensible, and they are anything but feminist. Rape is not and shouldn’t be used as a punishment, no matter how vile a person’s actions. Prison rape jokes are particularly unfunny given the extreme rates of sexual violence experienced by incarcerated people.

As feminists, let’s not confuse individual criminal punishment with justice. Yes, Nassar did terrible things. Yes, his victims deserve justice. But the criminal legal system fails to provide real justice in the form of healing for too many survivors, doesn’t demand behavioral change of perpetrators, and certainly does nothing to destroy the social conditions that facilitate sexual violence — quite the opposite.

When we think about what justice should look like for survivors, carceral feminism need not be our only choice. For decades, prison abolitionist feminists like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have organized to create a response to sexual violence that promotes survivors’ healing and self-determination and long-term social change — all without relying on a racist, sexist, transphobic criminal system to do it.

As we reflect on the Nassar sentencing, let’s re-commit ourselves to imagining a world without prisons, and to listening to the people already working to bring us closer to that world.   

Image via We Charge Genocide Campaign 

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, cat parent, and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. At Feministing, Jess writes about the intersection of state and interpersonal violence, LGBTQ communities and radical activism. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, cat parent, and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

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