Book Review – The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence

Review of Judith Levine & Erica R. Meiners, The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence (London & New York: Verso, 2020) vi+213 pp.

This is a book written by feminists for feminists. For most academic and activist writings, that would not be remarkable or particularly worthy of distinction, but this book is special because it chooses to focus upon a topic that causes distress and anxiety to many feminists; moreover, the book challenges feminists to rethink their position, which many activists blame for the draconian regime of mass incarceration and subsequent social death of men whose past sexual behavior has deviated from contemporary social norms. Womens’ Studies scholars commonly assert the necessity of “intersectional” analysis, but Levine and Meiners argue that they need to be even more intersectional in recognizing the damage to queers, people of color, and economically disadvantaged communities done by policies encouraged by mostly white, educated, cisgender heterosexual women under the banner of holding all perpetrators eternally accountable for crimes that have anything to do with sex. Levine and Meiners draw on strands of black and Latina feminism that, since the 1970s, have argued for the oppressive role of law enforcement against racial and ethnic minority communities. As well they invoke the rhetoric of prison abolition activists in proposing to reinvigorate “abolition feminism” to oppose the vindictive “carceral feminism” that has become so fashionable in the era of #MeToo crusades against still too frequent male swinishness. The authors argue that sexual violence cannot be ended by a regime of sanctioned state violence, but only by personal engagement and restorative justice within the community.

As a feminist journalist with a long background in left politics, Levine, along with Meiners, a tenured Gender Studies academic with a track record of publication on sex-offense related issues, presents us with a succinct, well-written polemic, backed up by solid references to peer-reviewed literature. While not minimizing the serious toll of sexual violence on its victims, they call our attention to the increasing severity of the sex offender regime, which imprisons men for terms substantially longer than are meted out to other categories of violent crime and then place them uniquely, often for life, on open public registries that make them pariahs within their communities, debar them from full involvement in their children’s lives, as well as the job opportunities and housing necessary to successful reintegration, despite long-documented statistics showing they are less likely to recidivate than any other class of “violent” felon (p. 70).

They contrast the complicity of contemporary carceral feminists with the anti-police distrust of state authority by the radical feminists of the 1970s, especially those who were non-white and poor. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, proudly shepherded by former Sen. Joe Biden, actually had the perverse effect of disempowering women and limiting their agency by forcing prosecution of violent partners whom many women chose to forgive and maintain as family breadwinners rather than see the family broken apart and forced into poverty by extended incarceration. They also see state paternalism at work in the 2011 initiative of the Obama-Biden administration (the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights) to require universities to investigate murky cases of drunken or later-regretted student sex with procedures and assumptions that presumed the truth of allegations and denied due process to the accused. They point out that these policies have produced the regressive result that the campus allegations have disproportionately targetted African-American males (pp. 27-28), even as the sex offender registries and carceral state also do (p. 50). Although they do not mention it, these allegations also disproportionately affect gay male students because other male students who may drunkenly consent to experiment with same-sex intimacy later regret it and want to cleanse themselves of any taint of being gay by casting their partner as a predator who took advantage of them.

The book is always ready with a handy statistic or study to illustrate the absurdity and futility of the surveillance regime that the war on sex offending has created. As laws and sentencing guidelines have grown progressively more punitive, sex offenders are the most rapidly increasing segment of the incarcerated population (12% of those in state prisons, 10% in federal facilities – p. 46), despite a decline in the absolute number of sex offense cases. A Minnesota study of the small number of sex offenders who re-offended showed that residency restrictions would not have prevented a single case of re-offense, and a New York study showed that the institution of community notification had no effect on rates of sex offending (pp. 51-52). Girls spend twice as long in juvenile detention for sex offenses as boys (p. 56). A California study showed that released felons who had been through a sex offender treatment program in prison were no more or less likely to re-offend than those who received no treatment (p. 73). Individuals with strong religious involvement throughout their lives actually have higher rates of sex offending, more victims, and younger victims (p. 108). A meta-analysis showed that the most commonly used instrument for assessing the risk of recidivism was accurate only 60% of the time, “not much better than a coin toss”(p. 75). This entire vastly expensive and bureaucratic system is nothing but security theater for the benefit of an anxious and fearful population, unsupported by even a sliver of empirical evidence for its effectiveness.

Part III of the book, called “Fractured Resistance,” strikes a more hopeful note as it surveys the terrain of various groups that are fighting or might be enlisted in fighting the pernicious effects of carceral solutions to anathematized sex: we meet groups like NARSOL, ACSOL, and WAR (Women Against the Registry), largely composed of mothers, grandmothers, and wives of men caught up in the system. Their effectiveness has been limited by failure to forge alliances with other groups that might be helpful: movements to restore voting rights to felons or register them where they do have the right to vote, the broader prison abolition movement, some non-mainstream LGBTQ organizations, religious ministries that see no one as “irreparable,” the men’s movement, disability rights advocates aware of how age and disability are used as an excuse to deprive people of sexual agency, and sex worker support groups that have learned all too well that criminalization of websites offering sexual services puts them at greater risk of abuse by clients or pimps. The authors express hope that each of these groups can look beyond their particular focus to understand the broader context of the struggle for a world where both sexual violence and state violence are rare. However, given the differing agendas of these groups and the timidity of those who fear being tarred with charges of “normalizing pedophilia” or being “rape apologists” for daring even to raise the issue (charges particularly likely to be hurled at male activists), this vision of a broad fusionist movement may be an elusive pipe dream.

What is the alternative to the carceral system for men who harm others sexually? Levine and Meiners show enthusiasm for Circles of Support and Accountability and other manifestations of what is called “Restorative Justice” or “Transformative Justice.” This approach has considerable appeal, but I am disappointed that their chapter is short on examples of how it works in real life situations. The one concrete example concerns a small activist organization dealing with a once-influential officer who committed sexual harassment. Everyone getting together to educate such an individual and hold them accountable for pursuing change in the future might work in such small-scale collaborative contexts, and also holds some potential for the many Title IX cases that involve situations of ambiguous, drunken, or poorly verbalized consent among inexperienced college students. But what would Restorative Justice look like in the most serious cases: the woman who is forcibly raped by a stranger (not her date), or the small child who is manipulated by an adult into doing something they neither understood nor wanted? Would such victims ever want to see their assailant again, much less engage with him in a process of mutual healing? Those with an exceptional capacity for philosophical breadth, empathy, and forgiveness might, but we must understand that many victims will not. Can we always find five sympathetic and emotionally stable friends for every sex offender who needs a Circle of Support and Accountability? Offenders and victims alike tend to come from marginalized communities with frayed social fabric and low thresholds of tolerance.

In keeping with their aspirational mission, Levine and Meiners end the book with ten concrete recommendations. Most of these are obvious and would receive our wholehearted support: end the Registry, end civil commitment and the medicalization of sexual deviance, rationalize the laws pertaining to teenage sexuality, provide positive sex education that does not focus on sexuality only in terms of risk, but as a collaborative interaction that aims at reinforcing social bonds through mutual pleasure. I particularly like their proposal to “complicate consent” beyond the simple-minded strictures that imagine every sexual exploration must be desiccated into a constantly affirmed checklist of “Yes” and “No.” As they point out, there is a lot that even vanilla practitioners can learn about consent from the BDSM community; I would add that cruising spaces of the gay community have also evolved codes of communicating consent and non-consent that are not always verbal and from which heterosexuals can derive valuable lessons.

I am more dubious about their proposal that sexual violence can be reduced if we “Build and Sustain a Robust Welfare State.” Domestic abuse, spousal rape, and child sexual abuse occur in families up and down the socio-economic ladder; sexual harassment is just as much a problem in corporate boardrooms, broadcast TV studios, and the halls of Congress as it is among the immigrant janitorial staff cleaning those facilities overnight. There is no evidence that socialist economies or generous welfare benefits correlate with lower rates of sexual abuse. The fusionist approach to organizing and activism depends on attracting support across the political spectrum. Small-government libertarians are natural allies to those of us who want to get law enforcement out of the bedroom, so they should not be alienated with calls for massive redistribution of wealth that has no provable relation to the problem under consideration. A government that is omnipotent enough to provide cradle-to-grave care for all its citizens is just as paternalistic as the state that attempts to legislate sexual morality and enforce it with brutal repression. Both are grounded in the conviction that a “knowledge elite” of privileged technocrats knows what is good for our public health and safety better than we do.  – TKH

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