Studying to be antiracist and feminist as a white man, I have learned that a major tension in the feminist movement is between its attempts to speak for all women and its evident dominance by white, middle class people. A flash point in this tension is the contradiction between the punitive approach of many feminists to the problem of sexual assault and the growing calls by people of color for an alternative to a racist and punitive criminal justice system.
“The Feminist and the Sex Offender” strives to overcome this tension, advocating for a progressive politic that aims to end all violence, including violence against women and state violence against people convicted of crimes. Its focus, however, is on the problems with the current imprisonment and treatment of sex offenders, and the ways in which racial and LGBTQ biases worsen that treatment.
Current laws regarding “sex offenders” have their origins in the 1970s, in hysteria fueled by stories from the now-discredited “recovered memory” movement that produced recollections of strangers kidnapping and sexually molesting children and day care workers involved in Satanic rituals. Child molestation is real, but the current approach neither prevents nor mitigates it; the criminal justice system instead creates a class of “criminals” whose definition is constantly expanding. “Child rape” was expanded to include consensual sex with and between teenagers, and minor sexual acting out was conflated with being a habitual sexual predator.
It should go without saying that enforcement of these laws is heavily biased against people of color, poor people and LBGTQ people; they are more likely to be prosecuted (sometimes falsely), more likely to be given heavier sentences and, in the case of LGBTQ people, more likely to be considered “deviant” because of their sexual preferences. As has been obvious with some of the high-profile rape and harassment cases that sparked the #metoo movement, powerful men — usually rich and white — generally don’t face any penalty for using their power in sexually violent ways.
Contrary to common belief, sex offenders coming out of prison are actually less likely to re-offend than the average prison population. In addition, while most people coming out of prison will have a hard time finding a job, a place to live or a supportive social circle, public sex offender registries and limitations on where people can live and work mean that many released offenders have an even more difficult time reestablishing a normal life.
The authors argue that sex offender mental health “treatment” during and after prison violates the usual norms of therapy, since most treatment is not confidential and saying the wrong thing in therapy can directly affect when and whether an offender is released. The value of such therapy is questionable.
As the authors put it, “to reject these punitive, medicalized models is not to suggest that people who have committed sexual harm be left to wander their neighborhoods without support from or accountability to others. In fact, one of the ironies of sex offender treatment is that while it supposedly aims to reeducate participants to relate differently to others, its terms and requirements, and the restrictions on registered citizens, foreclose almost all relationships, either casual or intimate.”
The book discusses a number of organizations working to restore rights for sex offenders, but most are alienated from the feminist movement, which is perceived as pro-incarceration and ignored by the anti-incarceration movement, partly for reasons of political expediency, as when the recent restoration of voting rights to felons in Florida explicitly excluded sex offenders.
While Levine and Meiners pose an alternative to incarceration of sex offenders — restorative or transformative justice — that discussion is fairly short and abstract (less than one fifth of the book) and gives little sense of how it would work in practice. Yet this would be the meat of a feminist alternative to the current prison system: how to work with people who have committed harm against other people, whether violent assault, rape or child molestation, in a way that not only minimizes the chances that they will repeat their actions (something the current prison system doesn’t do very well), but also educates about the way that oppression and privilege figured into those actions.
Levine and Meiners also avoid discussing the extremes of sexual offense and how to deal with, for example, serial rapists, in part because they believe the discussion too often turns on those exceptional cases rather than acknowledging that most released sex offenders are not a danger to society. Nevertheless, the deep-seated fear and even hysteria about the presence of former sex offenders in neighborhoods needs to be addressed with something more than statistics or theory; it would have to be an integral part of an alternative to the current system. While the book does a service in advocating for more intersectional kinds of feminism, it is unlikely to convince very many people.
Read more of the Sept. 23-29, 2020 issue.