Increased Incarceration Is Not the Answer: Rape, Women's Liberation, and the State

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 9:10 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon D (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Catherine Jacquet , University of Illinois at Chicago
Increased Incarceration is Not the Answer:

Rape, Women’s Liberation, and the state

This paper examines the struggles of anti-rape activists during the 1970s as they sought to end the epidemic of sexual violence.  Facing hostile legal, medical, and social arenas, activists within the women’s liberation movement organized a nationwide anti-rape movement and made sexual violence against women a major feminist battleground. 

Anti-rape activists sought significant reform in the legal arena.  They confronted ineffective rape laws that criminalized the victim and not the attacker, indifferent district attorneys, police that consistently doubted women’s credibility, and conviction rates in most American cities as low as 30%; some were as low as 10%. In response to this, activists attempted to force the legal system to take sexual violence seriously.   In the early 1970s, they launched massive statewide campaigns to reform rape laws, with varying degrees of success.

Yet not all movement participants agreed with this strategy.  In the midst of these reform efforts, many activists questioned whether the movement could count on racist and sexist “law and order” forces to protect them.  Many argued that encouraging prosecution and legal reform which increased conviction would only reinforce the legitimacy of a criminal justice system that targeted primarily poor men and men of color.  This approach would not address the root causes of rape and was therefore antithetical to movement goals. 

This paper examines the controversy within the movement over the appropriate relationship between women’s liberation and the state.  This approach counters dominant historical narratives which cast the movement as solely interested in the needs of white, middle-class women.  Indeed, my research shows that many activists expressed serious doubts about whether a state that they viewed as exclusively concerned with protecting the interests of wealthy white men could protect women in general from sexual violence.

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