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Perhaps It's Time to Think Beyond the 'Violence Against Women Act'

The much-touted bill relies on prisons and policing to help abuse survivors. The authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. see a better way.

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A bipartisan group of US Senators that includes Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and Dick Durban (D-Ill.) is determined to renew the Violence Against Women Act this year, nearly three years after Republican Senators blocked the reauthorization of the bill in 2019. And they have strong support from nearly every leading women’s rights and anti-sexual violence organization in the nation.

But the bill faces opposition, not just from Republicans, who oppose its gun safety measures and language that includes trans and non-binary people; some of its key components also face opposition from feminist activists, and particularly abolitionist feminist activists like Beth Richie, Gina Dent, Angela Davis, and Erica Meiners, who wrote the recently published book Abolition. Feminism. Now. As abolitionists organizing against the prison industrial complex, they argue that we should be addressing the root causes of interpersonal harm by investing in our communities rather than in prisons and policing, as VAWA does.

“VAWA ultimately relies on carceral strategies, in that a huge percent of the funding that’s authorized in that bill goes to prosecution, to training police officers, to criminalization, surveillance, and providing mostly criminal legal solutions for survivors,” Richie told Jezebel. “This is rather than what we would call more abolition solutions, like addressing the power imbalances that breed gendered violence through guaranteeing housing, employment training, childcare, food services, health care.”

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VAWA has a number of important features that include funding and resources for survivor hotlines, legal aid, shelters, and rape kit funding to serve the significant swaths of women and people of all genders and sexualities who have experienced sexual violence. But the bill, which was originally introduced as a part of then-Sen. Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill, does allocate most of its funding to police departments to respond to domestic violence, despite their long histories of disbelieving, mistreating, and retraumatizing survivors.

These features of VAWA are part of why the law has historically been criticized for primarily serving a narrow sliver of mostly white, middle-class or wealthy, straight, cis women who are more likely to be seen as “good” victims. In contrast, women, immigrants, and queer people of color are more likely to be harmed by VAWA’s mandatory arrest program, which compels police who are called to domestic violence disputes to arrest at least one person involved. In many cases, victims of sexual violence may be arrested themselves for self-defense against abusers, or if there’s any ambiguity in who is the primary abuser in an abusive relationship, which is common in same-sex relationships. One 2020 survey found 24% of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence say that they were consequently arrested or threatened with arrest, contributing to what’s known as the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline, and a prison system in which 90% of incarcerated women have survived sexual violence.

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Contrary to ever-present copaganda like Law and Order, police have proven either inept or actively harmful to most victims who turn to them for help, and we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by this. Despite how abuse victims are frequently invoked as the most common argument for why we need police, many report being failed or retraumatized by law enforcement. Other research has shown at least 40% of police officers are domestic abusers.

In Abolition. Feminism. Now., Richie and Dent present the case for why abolition and feminism are inextricably linked, noting how women and particularly women and trans people of color have historically been leaders of the movement for abolition. A key reason they were compelled to write the book is that false messaging has increasingly framed the feminist and abolitionist movements as being at odds with one another, because of the popular assumption that police always help rather than harm victims.

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Richie says VAWA has unfortunately contributed to this narrative. “There are many well-meaning advocates who are deeply committed to the work of liberation and freedom. But we’ve been limited in our imagination, and we have to think and build beyond the current system that’s more likely to criminalize than help survivors,” she said.

In the summer of 2020, amid a nationwide uprising for racial justice, nearly 50 anti-sexual violence organizations and direct service groups signed onto the “Moment of Truth” letter, highlighting the harms of police and prisons on victims of abuse, and calling for divestment from them. After sharing the letter, some of the groups who signed, including local shelters and community anti-violence programs, have since lost public funding, while others say police departments have stopped referring abuse victims to their services.

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This, Richie and Dent say, encapsulates how police and the greater prison industrial complex have capitalized on the traumas and vulnerabilities of the most marginalized people in society—particularly victims of sexual violence—to give their work the guise of legitimacy. When survivors and advocates fight back against being used, they face retaliation and punishment from these systems.

“The work we do has to be about more than getting rid of prisons, but thinking about what other system of relations we can create to achieve justice, to collectivize and share responsibility, to address harm without further harming or criminalizing survivors,” Dent said.

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Prior to VAWA, domestic violence was widely accepted, normalized, and shrugged off as a private affair, exclusively discussed in underground, feminist consciousness-raising circles. Advocacy around gender-based violence began to draw mainstream support amid the tough-on-crime era in the 1980s and 1990s, when awareness campaigns on the issue conflated it with “stranger-danger” violence in the streets. This, of course, was despite how most gender-based violence is carried out by intimate partners or someone the victim knows, and often takes place at home or in private.

As public awareness and protest of gender-based violence grew, some of the movement’s most visible activists ceded its more radical demands to gain wider public support, resulting in collusion with law enforcement and the carceral features of laws like VAWA.

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In Abolition. Feminism. Now., Richie, Dent, and their co-authors are critical of the many, seemingly benign reforms of prison and policing that actually lead to greater funding and investments in them, ultimately strengthening the prison industrial complex. This can include funding for sensitivity trainings for police that have proven ineffective; the construction of new, supposedly more humane prisons; or electronic monitoring and house arrest approaches that activists say will eventually turn most of society into a prison without walls.

In a similar vein, despite some of VAWA’s important investments in shelters and community violence prevention programs, the authors are dubious about how much the law can be reformed, so long as it extends from broader government systems of punishment, incarceration, and racial capitalism that denies poor people of color basic resources.

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Since the first version of VAWA passed in 1994, advocates through the years have constantly worked toward improving it, from updating its language to include queer and trans abuse victims to creating special routes to citizenship for select non-citizens experiencing domestic violence. Some Indigenous anti-violence activists are currently pressuring lawmakers to pass a version of VAWA that respects tribal sovereignty, citing a 1978 Supreme Court case that ruled that tribes don’t have the authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in their territories. Indigenous women and girls are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

With funding and other resources from VAWA, many shelters and organizations across the country have been able to offer both shelter to victims and support for their wide-ranging, day-to-day logistical needs, like transportation to places of employment, funds for prescription medication and health care.

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The authors recognize the life-saving ways that pieces of VAWA have reached and helped many people across the country—but they’re also concerned with how its existence has “been hugely distracting, to the extent that people have spent countless hours and money and ruined relationships over this damn bill.” This, Richie says, has come at the cost of focusing on on-the-ground efforts to raise money for people to have abortions amid existential threats to Roe v. Wade, or to help a trans person get access to housing and safety from transphobic violence, among other community-based avenues to more directly support survivors.

According to Richie, feminists need to reject neoliberal thinking that narrowly defines violence as individual, interpersonal acts that are disconnected from overarching crises of state violence—mass incarceration, the criminalization of poverty, family separation via immigration laws, the imprisonment of sexual assault survivors for acts of self-defense—that carry disproportionate harm for women, gender-oppressed people, and survivors of color.

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Amid the growing popularity of the Defund the Police movement and other abolitionist demands, Dent believes anti-violence activism is at an inflection point. Activists can continue to inadvertently harm and criminalize survivors—or they can reject carceral solutions and support the most marginalized survivors.

“Anyone who’s been involved with cases of gendered violence has seen firsthand that for all the resources that are consumed in handling just one case in the legal system, this often fails to improve the conditions of life for the person who was harmed, to offer them meaningful support, or to offer any possibility for transformation for the person who’s done harm,” Dent said. “We need to think both smaller and bigger, at the same time—to help the individuals who aren’t getting what they need, and on a systems-level, to stop bolstering the institutions that are failing them.”