- Interview by
- Laura Tanenbaum
In the last few years, the #MeToo movement has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and the ways they are used by mostly powerful, wealthy men to maintain social and economic hierarchies.
At the same time, the push for decarceration and opposition to policing have exploded into a national movement. For leftist feminists, these two movements raise urgent questions about how to fight sexual violence without swelling the carceral state.
The journalist and activist Judith Levine and scholar and activist Erica Meiners have thought long and hard about these issues, drawing on both scholarship and practice in their new book The Feminist and the Sex Offender. They recently spoke with Laura Tanenbaum, who has written for Jacobin on numerous topics related to feminism and sexual politics. This conversation was edited for clarity.
Can you tell us about your backgrounds and how you began collaborating on this book?
I have been involved as a writer, feminist, and activist in sex radical politics and in politics around various sex panics, including the moral panic around AIDS and the satanic ritual abuse panic that sent many hundreds of people to prison in the 1980s and 90s. Through all that I got closer to the world of the sex offender registry and the people on it. That brought me to the intersection of sex and criminalization.
I consider myself first an educator, secondarily a writer and an organizer, specifically an abolitionist. I’ve worked on different anti-prison and abolitionist campaigns. It took me a while to consider the category of people with convictions for sex offenses, yet it seemed central to address if I wanted to be a feminist and an abolitionist.
Judith, you mentioned the sex offender registry. Can you explain its history, scope, and what it does to people’s lives?
There were some sex offender registries in the past. There’s been one in California since 1947. It was mostly a police registry of gay men. Even though it wasn’t public, it could ruin your life, your reputation — you could lose your job. But the modern sex offender registry grew out of the sex abuse panics of the 1980s.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, there were several spectacularly horrific crimes against white middle-class children. Even though such crimes are exceedingly rare, they mobilized campaigns to “do something,” which always means more criminalization. Out of that came the registry and what’s called “civil commitment” — [sending someone to a] locked mental institution for a long time after their sentence.
Over the years, a series of federal and state laws began first to tell states to have a registry, then to make it public, then to make it nationally linked. Every time that happened they would add more crimes that were registrable, and increase penalties and time on the registry.
The registry is what it sounds like. It’s a list of everyone who has been convicted of a sexual offense, whether or not they have been incarcerated. Depending on the state, registration can be as short as ten years and as long as life. You have to go to the police regularly and tell them where you’re living, what you’re doing, if you bought a car or got a job. There are all these restrictions states have added: where you can live, where you can work, where you can travel. Your status as a “sex offender” is on your passport. In some states it’s on your driver’s license.
People have compared the registry to a banishment list. You’re a pariah. Anybody can get online, can get a map, and find your address. Many registrants have been victims of vigilante violence or even murder. It makes it impossible to construct a life after incarceration, which is hard enough as it is, because there are so many collateral consequences of felony conviction.
The whole idea was that we are going to protect children. But because most abuse of children happens inside the family, the registry doesn’t affect that. It just creates more “stranger danger” fear. The research for twenty-five years shows it doesn’t make anyone safer. Instead, it does a great deal of harm, not only to individuals and their families but to communities, because it makes us all suspicious.
Roger Lancaster uses this term, “poisoned solidarity”: we’re together against somebody. The registry is a legacy of the panics, and it keeps the panic alive. There are more than 900,000 people on sex offender registries, and there are about 6,500 people in civil commitment.
Even in the moment of so-called bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform, it’s one population that’s not on the agenda. Marie Gottschalk’s work shows that convictions for sex offenders are on the rise, even as there is growing consensus that something has to be done about what gets popularly called “mass incarceration,” but I use the term “targeted criminalization.”
You start the book with Larry Nasser, former doctor to the US national gymnastics team, being sentenced. It’s a rare moment of a powerful man being held to account for sexual violence. Of course, many famous and powerful people, like Brett Kavanaugh are not held to account. At the same time, many not powerful people are caught up in the system for sexual offenses, and on the registry. How should we think about these things together?
This is true in general in the criminal system: people with power get away with things, and everyone else gets over-punished. When we look at how Harvey Weinstein or any of these guys get caught — the only reason is there’s a trickle up of feminist organizing that’s been going on for decades or centuries.
You write about three groups of activists who have sometimes been at odds, and the possibilities for coalition: first, feminists who have worked in the system, and then abolitionists, and, finally, advocates for people on the sexual offender registry, who often have anti-feminist politics.
There are overlaps. There are people who are working, not necessarily in the criminal justice system, but in collaboration with it. There are people who say, “I’m not going to have anything to do with any of the institutions — I won’t even do restorative justice in the schools.” And there’s a lot of people in between, who deal with systems because of the reality. Erica teaches in prisons. She doesn’t support prisons, but that’s where incarcerated people are.
Recently I’ve had some heartening experiences. I did a webinar with a man on the registry in Michigan who is very active in Safe & Just Michigan, which is on the left end of criminal system reform. I was being really strongly feminist and also saying, “abolish the sex offender registry.”
A lot of people on the registry are not happy about feminism because they see feminists as carceral. So the response was fantastic. There are ways these groups are coming together, because sexual offenders are a growing group, and because they emblemize the problems that people who have been incarcerated face.
Crisis offers an opportunity to either double down on existing fault lines or to make a change. I feel indebted to many organizations, particularly those women of color and queer feminist networks and/or sex work feminists who have worked to build these bridges. Our book mentions some of those organizations: Women With a Vision in New Orleans; Black and Pink; INCITE! Women of Color Gender Non-conforming and Trans People of Color against Violence; and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. These organizations and others argue against criminalization with the idea that no one is disposable, that we can’t push anyone out of our abolitionist movement.
Recently we’ve seen Larry Krasner and Chesa Boudin win district attorney positions on decarceration platforms. How do you see the mainstreaming of these voices?
I want to see the strategy about how these moves are chipping away and divesting from harmful state systems rather than reinforcing the system. So now, the Chicago Police Department does “restorative practices” when they are gobbling up 40 percent of the city’s operating budget and we don’t have mental health services, or enough nurses in schools. We need budget lines to move, we need disinvestment and reinvestment, we don’t need police who do some restorative work.
You write about tensions within criminal justice reform and even abolitionist circles about people who are reluctant to work with sex offenders. People might not want them in jail, but don’t want to think about it too much or have it be the focus.
Marie Gottschalk talks about the “nons”: nonserious, nonsexual, nonviolent offenders that a lot of reformers focus on. But if you focus only on them, you can only reduce the prison population by 20 or 25 percent. There are people like [the organization] Black and Pink who say, “No, we have to support everybody.”
The system uses the sex offender as a way to soften up popular acceptance of draconian surveillance and punishment. If you do it to them, you can do it to anyone. Many of the surveillance technologies, like the ankle bracelet, risk assessment — they come from the punishment of sex offenders and then expand.
When we talk about restorative justice, I think a lot of people are receptive. But when talking about the Larry Nassers, the Brett Kavanaughs, it’s hard to picture. How do we think about people like them? Are they the extreme cases that make for bad policy and thinking?
People like Weinstein or Cosby name the systems that make sexual violence and other forms of harm possible. In that sense they are not exceptional. People can be harmed because of their precarious work situations. The political systems, the economic ones, are not exceptional. The danger in this moment is that we see the individual and work to punish him and ignore the systems.
In the Larry Nasser case, I was very moved that a lot of the athletes asked for accountability from the systems that made the harm possible — the health care system, the university. They haven’t received a powerful response. People who have been harmed often want systems to change.
The system we have isn’t working to prevent sexual harm and deter people from doing it. If people don’t grab women’s butts on the subway, it’s because feminism made that an unacceptable thing to do. Not because there are cops on the subway!
The system isn’t working for accountability. Your job as a defendant is to say, “I didn’t do it,” even if you did. That’s your defense attorney’s job. The victim often feels the prosecutor is her lawyer. She learns very quickly they’re not her lawyer. She never talks to the defendant, that’s not allowed. She never gets to say, “Why did you do this to me? You really hurt me, and this is what I want.”
Some people are going to want to send the rapist away for twenty-five years, but that’s because it’s the only alternative we have. So many survivors say, “I want him to hear what happened. I want him to listen to me.” That’s the only thing that’s going to change anybody. Going to prison only tends to make people angrier and more defensive.
Our system is not doing the thing it says it intends to do: deliver justice. We’ve so marginalized the idea of mercy and forgiveness, and that’s what is embodied in restorative practices — the idea that we are not the worst thing we’ve ever done.
In terms of the long haul, Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organization I am a member of, frames the struggle in terms of talking about dismantling, changing, and building. In some cases, we do know what works or what we need to dismantle and build to create safer homes and communities. If we had positive, queer-affirming sexual health education, if we had quality and free childcare — some things aren’t rocket science, but the policy makers have continually chosen not to invest in these.
Right now we’re seeing a collective unwillingness to have the racialized violence of policing be the future. This message has erupted many times before, and we’re at another moment where it’s erupting. This moment feels different.
I want to reiterate that this is a feminist project. The feminist vision is one in which there is no domination — economic, social, racial, or sexual. It’s a vision of a world in which we care for one another, in which we have room for pleasure, where children have a full, healthy life, and we respect them. This is what feminism is about, it’s not about protecting women from “bad men.”