On Sept. 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 just the opposite.
The basis for the state’s line of thinking is an endorsement of carceral feminism. Diana Colavita, prison-industrial complex abolitionist and 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, at its core, the prison-industrial complex is inherently violent—particularly against the marginalized people its supporters purport that it protects. Colavita urges us to reject supposed interventions like so-called 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 is not a theoretical exercise. We have already seen, in practice, how these types of interventions are implemented. “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, then-President Barack Obama signed the 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. But the rights that it codifies are not those that materially help survivors of sexual assault. 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 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Originally considered at the same time as the 1994 Crime Bill, VAWA enshrined many alleged protections into law. Among those is the compulsory arrest of accused abusers, which has led to 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 that scenario, the police are compelled to arrest them both, forcing a survivor of trauma to be further traumatized by arrest and potential jail time. VAWA also guarantees that the collection of evidence for rape kits is free, but the medical care a survivor might need due to an assault is not. In fact, uninsured survivors are saddled with medical bills often soaring over $3,000 for their required care after an assault. 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? What good does the preservation of rape kits do if those same kits are being used years later to charge survivors with unrelated crimes?
The state is also one of the worst perpetrators of 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 this is because state-sanctioned sexual violence has historically been a tool of colonialism and white supremacy, which American policing is deeply rooted in.
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 15 when she killed the 37-year-old man who she said had raped her multiple times. After spending years in juvenile detention, 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 not an anomaly. Siobhan Dingwall, member of #StandWithTracy and Survived and Punished NY, explains that Tracy McCarter was wrongfully arrested in March 2020 when she survived a domestic violence assault during which her abuser 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. E-carceration has made it impossible for Tracy to work, access mental health treatment, or visit her family. 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 urgent as she could face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. The situation has already been traumatic for her. As McCarter said in an interview with The Nation, “The state becomes the worst abuser you could ever have. They lie. They gaslight you. They physically and emotionally traumatize you. They are so powerful that my ability to leave my abuser no longer exists.”
Because of the shortcomings and overt violence of the carceral state, any bill of rights that relies on it to protect survivors will not succeed. “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.”