Wednesday, February 7, 2018
“Carceral feminism” refers to a reliance on policing, prosecution, and imprisonment to resolve gendered or sexual violence. A very early manifestation of this approach came with the UK’s Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. The act responded to public concern over slim evidence of the entrapment of British girls into the sex trade by raising the age of consent and outlawing “gross indecency” — which, as it happens, also gave the government a more effective means to arrest suspected gay men. (Famously, this was the law under which Oscar Wilde was convicted.)
The carceral impulse has arisen in each of feminism’s three waves and is most visible among today’s so-called sex-work “abolitionists,” who argue against decriminalizing sex work and instead for the criminalizing the purchase of sex. While intended to aid sex workers, in practice this approach leads to the isolation of workers from their systems of support and prevents them from earning a living.
Elizabeth Bernstein, a professor of women’s studies and sociology at Barnard, was one of the first to use the phrase “carceral feminism.” It appears in her 2007 article “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism.’”
She describes carceral feminism as failing to address the underlying economic conditions that exacerbate gendered violence. Neoliberalism shaped “a carceral turn in feminist advocacy movements previously organized around struggles for economic justice and liberation,” she writes. Instead of pushing for the preconditions necessary for feminist liberation, the “carceral turn” restricts feminist horizons to the individual and the punitive, rather than the collective and redistributive.
What does carceral feminism look like in practice? In the 1970s, class-action lawsuits filedby women against police departments that either ignored domestic violence calls or provided inadequate services — however well intended — spawned an approach to the issue of domestic violence overly reliant on prisons and punishment. Such cases resulted in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA for short, which was included in the largest crime bill in US history. It was a $30 billion piece of legislation that, among other things, funded the hiring of 100,000 new police officers across the country.
What grew from carceral feminism’s efforts to combat domestic violence should concern us all. Another example: Today, nearly half of all states have a mandatory arrest law, which requires that if someone places a call to law enforcement about domestic violence, the police must arrest someone in response.