(This is the 2nd part of a series of posts I’ve written on rape culture. The first post in the series is here.)
There has been a lively debate amongst feminists in North America and beyond about several Slutwalks that have been organized throughout Canada, the US, and the UK. The first Slutwalk took place in my home town of Toronto, and was sparked by a comment made by a police officer at York University, a school that my younger sister and several of my friends attend or have attended.
For the past several years, York has also been a hotbed of gender-based violence and rape. There were rapes in residence, sexual assaults at knife and gun point, recently a gay bashing, a murder, and a sexual assault at 4 PM in the afternoon.
For those not familiar with the campus, York University is in northwest Toronto, and even with massive urban development in and around Toronto over the past few decades, it remains fairly isolated. There is limited public transit to the campus, it is set back from main roadways, which are themselves mostly populated by townhouses and strip malls. The campus is also surrounded by some of Toronto’s poorest and ill-serviced areas. The campus population is a diverse one. There is a significant population of racialized students, a large newcomer and international student population, a significant and active Muslim student population, and a history of radical student and labour action.
Violence on campus even sparked a safety audit conducted by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC). The METRAC audit was released on June 25, 2010 and included 101 recommendations to increase safety on campus. It included some reactionary measures, like increasing security staff, and providing more financial support to the Sexual Assault Survivors Support Line (SASSL), but also some more structural recommendations like making equity or women’s studies courses mandatory for undergraduate students in order to address problems of racism, misogyny, and sexism on campus.
In January, at a session being given by the Toronto Police Service at the Osgoode Law School at York, a police officer told a group of York university students that women could avoid being assaulted or victimized if they didn’t dress like sluts.
In response to the police officer’s comment, some women started organising and held the first Slutwalk, to call out “victim blaming” – to say that it’s rapist who are responsible for raping, not women who are raped. There has been all kinds of blogs and articles both critical of Slutwalks and defending the tactic. I don’t want to wade into that debate right now. We can talk later about sex-positivity, generational gaps between women, the need for political movements for young women, and more at a different time. I want to talk about the role of police, the criminal legal system, and prison, in the fight against sexual assault, gender-based violence, and rape. I think the Slutwalk is a recent, relevant, example we can point to.
The comment made by that police officer is in many ways just an extreme version of a common sentiment our society passively accepts. Don’t walk alone at night. Never put your drink down. Don’t take the stairs alone. Lock your door at night. Lock your windows. Don’t dress that way or do that thing. Women are taught over and over again that we in some way incite or encourage sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and rape.
In many ways, this argument is used to say that we need to teach police to be more sensitive to sexual assault. Women have long struggled against police services that bring domestic abuse survivors back to abusive partners, that don’t answer calls from women getting beaten by their husbands, who let lesbians and racialized women get beaten and raped, or beat and/or rape lesbians and racialized women. Many people argue that we have police forces that are more “sensitive” to these “issues” now. There are policies and protocols, and victim services and some kind of complaints process, which are all supposed to mediate the problem of police brutality and police violence.
Despite all these measures, there are recent legal cases that show that the problems within the criminal legal system are not just about the police. Earlier this year, a Manitoba judge gave a perpetrator of sexual assault a reduced sentence based on the clothing that the survivor was wearing at the time of attack. Instead of being removed from the bench, he was only removed from cases of a sexual nature.
Just this week, a case involving the ability of a person to give advanced consent reached the Supreme Court of Canada and while the judgement found that no one can give advanced consent, three judges gave dissenting judgements.
We can say that we can educate the police and maybe they will understand the complexities of rape and violence against women, and intimate-partner abuse. We can talk about how we need to add/get rid of laws, and then police will stop attacking sex workers or women struggling with addictions. We can choose to dismiss a judge’s ruling as just a bad apple, an old white man left on the bench, a relic of a different time.
All of these ideas amount to “We can make the criminal legal system work better” or “We can make the system just” – statements that I just don’t think are true. The criminal legal system, like broader society, accept that some women deserve it, that in many cases women are responsible for the violence of perpetrators. The police, judges, and the courts, as institutions, have the power and the purpose to maintain certain power structures in society. So while many in society do nothing to challenge rape culture, the police and the courts are responsible for its maintenance.
Large groups of people (racialised people, poor people, sex workers, people struggling with addictions, queer people, aboriginal people, youth, trans people) are denied access to the service of the protection afforded by a police service and criminal legal system working in their interest. The desire to have access to such a privilege is understandable. It is understandable that people who are denied this privilege just want to be able to call the police when they are beaten or raped or robbed or feeling unsafe, but they can’t because of a legacy of violence perpetrated in their communities by police and criminal legal systems. Calling the police also means giving over control to an institution that you may not trust – maybe you need support getting home after being robbed, but you don’t want the person who robbed you to go to jail. Maybe you need to see a doctor after a rape, but you are not sure about reporting the crime for any number of reasons. Maybe you need help breaking up a fight, but don’t want charges to be laid, or maybe you need protection from an abusive partner, but are afraid that the police will discover your partner is a drug dealer and put him in jail for 20 years.
But, turning to the criminal legal system, will not stop rape, it will not build community power to deal with difficult issues like assault, intimate partner abuse, and drug addiction.
It is common to hear in the media and from women’s advocacy groups that reporting rates for sexual assault and rape are low, and that rape and sexual assault are not punished adequately by the courts. But for a minute, let’s think about what the result of higher reporting rates would be.
When we report crime and when the courts hand down harsh sentences, people end up in cages. Perpetrators go to jail, experiencing de-humanizing conditions, violence, and abuse. When a perpetrator is a person of colour or Aboriginal, their sentence is likely to be harsher than if they had been white. Perpetrators who are poor, and/or struggling with addiction or mental illness, are also likely to face harsher sentences than perpetrators who can afford lawyers.
The criminal legal system enforces the same racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic systems of power and control that centralize power in the hands of a few. Prisons are inherently punitive and retributive. They allow the state to exert revenge on people for actions they may have taken.
Rape and gender-based violence are tools of war used in prisons to keep people under control. A year ago in Toronto, during the meeting of the G20, police threatened women with gang rape, segregated queer people, and subjected prisoners to dehumanizing and cruel conditions. Those events were not just a one-off occurrence. Instead, many people saw for the first time the reality that incarcerated people experience day in and day out in our prison system. Rape culture is pervasive in our prisons. It’s part of the institution of power in prison, and we can’t challenge rape culture, without also challenging prisons, police, and the court systems.
The Slutwalk came from a particular context, one in which attempts to deal with gender-based violence and rape on campus have been brushed off. Where attempts to deal with the systematic issues of rape – patriarchy, oppression, privilege, and misogyny – are ignored. The threat of challenging the underlying causes of rape culture – misogyny and hate – and refusing to give over our power of collective organizing to institutions like the police and the courts, is significant. Rendering prisons and the courts irrelevant in the battle against gender-based violence and rape culture would mean new concepts of solidarity and support, new ideas of accountability and community power.
These are big and ambitious ideas. The court system is what we have right now, and some people will still need to use it. But we need to keep dreaming big.
Some Recommended Reading:
Community Accountability Working Document Principles/Concerns/Strategies/Models (INCITE Women of Color Against Violence)
Towards Transformative Justice (Generation FIVE) -
Slutwalk: To March or Not to March (Harsha Walia)
Community Responses to Violence (Victoria Law) – Upping the Anti, Issue 12
Are Prisons Obsolete? – Angela Davis