Louisiana, Florida and Montana allow the death penalty for sex crimes. Now South Carolina is considering similar punishment for sex offenders (see the CBS News story). Considering the essential work rape crisis centers and community activists have been doing to inform us on how to support survivors of sexual violence in a healthy way – it is worth noting that the criminal justice system violates all of their suggestions. It reacts just as many a vengeful, pride and anger-filled boyfriend would after hearing their partner had been assaulted. Because the punishment, death in this case, is so severe an offender is more likely to deny any harm that may have been done than hold themselves accountable to community healing. This further encourages the culture of denial that already permeates a criminal trial, making justice for survivors unlikely even if temporary safety is assured.
And this is even assuming the criminal justice system equally targets all sex offenders for prosecution. This is far from the truth - since 1940 405 of the 453 men executed for sexual assault were black, all of whom were sentenced to death for allegedly raping white women. Because the data and research on sex offenders is so tied to the criminal justice system this open racism helps to fortify myths that, in the end, hurt us all. Most sexual assault is actually done within communities – people of color assault people of color and white people assault white people. In fact, white men perpetrate most of the interpersonal violence in our society. Most survivors of violence also knew their aggressor for at least a year previous to the assault (contrary to the myth of the dangerous stranger moving into the neighborhood). The criminal justice system feeds us a false portrayal of violence in our society that distracts from addressing problems behind our own doors. Sexual violence is directly connected to traditional masculinity and a larger culture that we all have a role in shaping. If we point the finger at “those bad men” we may feel better but we’re also conveniently denying responsibility for our own behaviors and assumptions that support rape culture.
We need critical dialogue on how we respond to interpersonal violence and what we allow to take place in our names. We need to talk about the culture that contributes to sexual violence rather than pretend we can isolate the safe from the dangerous with bars. As men doing this work we need to ask the question - can we talk about healthy masculinities in a way that empowers men while working with an institution that is opposed to our core messages of equity, justice and community?
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance have together started this critical dialogue, by answering the challenge to connect the anti-violence and anti-prison movements, in their joint statement. We can continue the conversation at all of our sexual violence prevention coalition meetings, organizational strategy sessions and late night visioning parties.
For more information see Rape, Racism and Victim Advocacy by Lisa M. Calderón, or Paul Kivel's Young White Men: Scared, Entitled, and Cynical.
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