On September 2, the United Nations voted unanimously to pass an international sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights, which many have touted as a feminist win. It’s true that survivors of sexual assault need protection, access to care, accountability, and justice. But this UN resolution isn’t likely to lead to those outcomes. The U.S.’ statement on the passage of this bill of rights clarifies what implementation would look like, including “the training of law enforcement and justice sector personnel in handling gender-based violence cases in a trauma-informed manner” as part of the “efforts to ensure that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have access to survivor-centered justice.” As we already know, diverting funds to policing doesn’t keep survivors safe. It does the exact opposite.
The basis for the state’s line of thinking is an endorsement of carceral feminism. Diana Colavita is a prison-industrial complex abolitionist, and an organizer with Survived and Punished NY, describes carceral feminism as “the belief that violence, including gender-based violence (like intimate partner violence and sexual assault), is an individual problem that can be solved on an individual basis in the criminal-punishment system, which carceral feminists believe is usually fair.” However, the carceral state is not feminist and cannot be reformed against its very nature into being feminist. This is because the prison-industrial complex at its core is. inherently violent — particularly against the marginalized people its supporters purport that it protects. Colavita urges us not to accept so-called interventions. gender-responsive jails or trauma-informed police, which are just the state’s way of bastardizing concepts it refuses to truly understand. “Policing and incarceration are traumatic experiences,” says Colavita, and “no amount of trauma-informed training is going to make interactions with the police less traumatic.”
This trauma isn’t a theoretical exercise. These types of interventions are already being implemented as we have seen them in practice. “I think to understand this UN resolution, you have to understand the U.S. federal legislation and subsequent state bills that the same people pushed for and that it is largely based around,” says Yves Tong Nguyen, a queer and disabled Vietnamese cultural worker and sex worker whose organizing home is with Survived and Punished NY and Red Canary Song. In 2016, the then-President Barack Obama signed Survivors’ Bill of Rights into law in the U.S. It’s easy to read a name like that and assume that its passage would be a good thing. The rights it codifies do not help survivors of sexual abuse. Instead, Tong Nguyen says, its main purpose is “preserving rape kits and overhauling how sexual assaults are reported to encourage more survivors to report.” Because of this, police are often granted extra funding to their already bloated budgets to implement the overhauls in states that have passed comparable legislation. Most of the time, politicians and stakeholders consider giving police more resources a successful intervention, but even if you subscribe to the idea that law enforcement is meant to keep us safe, you’d see that they were doing a bad job.
It’s not only that this reliance on policing and incarceration doesn’t help survivors of sexual violence; it actively harms them. Consider the following. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The 1994 Crime Bill was originally considered. VAWA codified many of the alleged protections into law. The compulsory arrest of accused abusers is one example. a rise in dual arrests — a situation which occurs when the abuser says their victim was also abusing them or was the real abuser all along. In such a scenario, the police will arrest both of them, causing trauma survivors to be further traumatized and potentially sentenced to jail time. VAWA also guarantees that evidence for rape is collected at no cost, but that survivors will not be charged for any medical care they might require after an assault. Uninsured survivors are not covered. are saddled with medical billsFor the care they require after an assault, it is common for them to spend more than $3,000 What good does collecting a rape kit free of charge do when people who were harmed can’t access free HIV prophylaxis, Plan B, therapy, or treatment for physical injuries? How useful is it to preserve rape kit if they are still being used years later? to charge survivors with unrelated crimes?
The state is also a member of the worst perpetratorsof sexual violence. “Police routinely sexually harass, assault, and extort people with impunity whether on duty or off duty, and corrections officers are also sexually violent toward incarcerated people,” says Tong Nguyen. They explain that state-sanctioned violence against sexual minorities has been a tool of colonialism, white supremacy, and American policing is deeply rooted.
Criminalizing people for survival — and thus subjecting them to state violence — is also common. Colavita describes “survival” as “anything from defending oneself from violence, abuse, or assault, being forced to engage in criminalized acts by their abuser, engaging in criminalized acts to escape or avoid violence, among other things.” When the survivor doesn’t fit the perfect victim archetype, and is Black, Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, queer or trans, sex working, undocumented, or drug-using, they are more likely to be punished for surviving violence. Pieper Lewis was only 15 when she murdered the 37-year old man she claimed raped and raped her many times. After years of juvenile detention, Pieper Lewis was released. Lewis was made to pay $150,000 to her alleged rapist’s family and $4,000 to the state and was also placed on probation.
Lewis is no anomaly. Siobhan Dingwall is a member of #StandWithTracyThe book, Survived & Punished NY, explains this. Tracy McCarterIn March 2020, she was wrongly arrested after she survived a domestic violence attack during which her abuser had died. “Despite evidence that she was defending her life and was providing her abuser with medical care after immediately calling the police,” says Dingwall, “she was arrested and charged with murder.” She was held on Rikers Island for nearly seven months and has since been released with a GPS monitor. Tracy has been unable to work, receive mental health treatment, visit her family, or access E-carceration. The DA’s office, after filing a motion to reduce her charges from murder to manslaughter, now claims it cannot drop the charges. But Dingwall says that “they have total discretion over the case, and legal experts have said the same.” The campaign and fundraiser for her freedom are urgentShe could be sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. Her situation is already traumatic. As McCarter said in an interview with The Nation, “The state becomes the worst abuser you could ever have. They lie. They gaslight and lie to you. They emotionally and physically traumatize you. They are so powerful that my ability to leave my abuser no longer exists.”
Any bill of rights that relies upon the carceral state to protect survivors will fail because of its shortcomings and violence. “There is no world where there are police and prisons and all survivors are safe. It is impossible,” Tong Nguyen says. “Abuse and sexual violence are rooted in power, and the only way to upend that is to upend systems of power and oppression, which police and prisons are built upon.”
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