Updated: Jul 9, 2022
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes: The cooptation of the movement to end rape
As abolition takes center stage in the movement to defend Black lives and defund the police, more people are asking: What about the rapists? This question isn’t new for abolitionists. In fact, support for survivors started as a peer-led and grassroots effort explicitly opposed to policing. The movement became increasingly professionalized in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in 1994, with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), funding for anti violence organizations became increasingly tied to carceral systems. Survivors and organizers have cautioned against this collusion for a long time. In 1977, in their open letter to the antirape movement, reprinted this year as a zine by Mariame Kaba, three organizers with the Santa Cruz Women Against Rape wrote: “[A]s anti-rape groups, we have the responsibility to expose the function, and challenge the process, of the criminal justice system. Attempts at ‘good relations’ with the criminal justice system have served to co-opt our movement, and have led to the belief (or hope) that the criminal justice system can solve the problem of rape. Yet, the sexist and racist nature of the criminal justice system only makes the problem worse.”
As we make progress in the movement against rape, we also face new forms of cooptation. And when the wolf is wearing sheep’s clothes, our best defense is to expose the contradictions.
Now, as some domestic violence and sexual assault agencies take even small steps to demonstrate their support for Black lives, like displaying a Black Lives Matter sign in their window, law enforcement agencies and funders are withdrawing support. As Melissa Gira Grant recently wrote in The New Republic,
“Police are not rebelling. By withdrawing their partnership and weaponizing their power, they are demonstrating the kind of discretion that has long defined their role in anti-violence work: the power to say who deserves protection and who does not.”
For Black trans and queer sex workers who have always relied on strategies for building safety without policing, we have seen cooptation and collusion at its most extreme. At anti-sex work organizations, our work in the sex trades is labeled as “paid rape” and described as inherently and uniquely exploitative. Instead of listening to sex workers and survivors about our experiences, and the ways we keep each other safe, our experiences are defined and pathologized by white saviors who have little concern for our economic conditions and yet want to “rescue” us from the work we do to survive. Often referring to themselves as abolitionists and sex work as modern slavery, anti-sex work organizations like Polaris (named after the North Star that guided enslaved people to freedom) and Operation Underground Railroad weaponize the language of abolition to advocate for the criminalization of sex work. In doing so, these primarily white led organizations co-opt Black radical movements and obscure the realities of our struggle against patriarchal violence, which is inextricably tied to the violence of prisons and policing. As Emi Koyama has written: The successor of chattel slavery in the United States isn’t human trafficking; it’s the modern prison system.
Then, there’s a small, and growing, corner of the world where we firmly reject prisons, policing, punishment, and patriarchal violence. In this corner, we hold certain principles to be true: Prisons are sites of violence; no one is disposable; and survivors deserve support from their communities. Among prison abolitionists, we also have disagreements about how best to respond to rape and abuse.
Restorative/transformative justice practices like the circle or community accountability process, involving long-term support for both the survivor and abuser, have become increasingly popular in radical organizing spaces. However, with its growing popularity, this strategy has similarly been co-opted and weaponized by those seeking to maintain the status quo. Some of us who are critical of the increasingly widespread popular application of community accountability processes have seen it morphed into a courtroom replicated in our communities, often placing survivors on trial and being used to protect abusers’ status while silencing and isolating survivors. In these co-opted processes, abusers and their enablers have learned all the right language while continuing to engage in abusive behaviors.
So, what do we do when the language of abolition has become widely popular, but the actions and behaviors associated with it are still elusive?
This past year, many of us ripped down the curtain: We used public pressure to expose the contradictions, and we faced backlash. It is a reminder that the struggle to end violence and create change will not come easily through patient dialogue with our oppressors. We have to keep applying pressure to create a context that makes transformation the only path forward. As our predecessors wrote in their 1977 letter, “We do not believe that rape can end within the present capitalist, racist, and sexist structure of our society. The fight against rape must be waged simultaneously with the fight against all forms of oppression.”