#MeToo: Carceral Feminism, Sexual Agency, And Forgiveness

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Ruth Klassen Andrews.

Almost every woman (and many men) has a “Me Too” story. If we haven’t been raped, we’ve been violated emotionally and/or economically. We earn less than a man for the same work, and much worse, we’re financially unable to leave abusive jobs and/or situations. While some remain stuck, others of us have freed ourselves, often at considerable cost.

I was sixteen when my mother was raped and murdered, and my sisters were fifteen, thirteen and eleven. The crime was never solved. We each separately (we couldn’t bear to talk to each other about it) had to figure out how to stop the hellish images that constantly played in our brains. We had to realize we were trapped in victimhood, and that it, too,was destroying us. We had to learn to talk about all of this. Each step took many years and impacted the people we eventually married as well as our children.

Now that I have granddaughters, I want them to grow into women without knowing the traumatic betrayal I experienced. I also want them to be strong, analytical and ferocious when necessary. I want them to have wonderful sex lives and consider themselves the world’s greatest lovers. They’ll learn and grow by having a variety of experiences, probably not all wonderful, but this is how they will develop sexual agency.

In 2008, Rachel Pittard and Rachel Robertson of Hanover College defined sexual agency as the ability to make sexual choices according to one’s will, free from coercion—feeling in control of one’s sexual decisions and experiences. Sexual agency stands in contrast to the concept of carceral feminism, a term invented by Elizabeth Bernstein in 2007 to describe a reliance on policing, prosecution, and imprisonment to resolve gendered or sexual violence. Both concepts are necessary to understand the battle currently raging in Title IX – the program charged by the federal government with resolving complaints of sexual harassment on college campuses.

Survivor advocates (who insist survivors be believed and strive to safeguard them from intimidation) have lined up against advocates for the accused (who insist everyone has the right to know what they are accused of, who is accusing them, and the right to cross-examine their accuser). The scapegoat is Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. In Sept of 2017, after rolling back guidelines issued in the Obama era, she was accused of dragging survivors back into the dark ages. Her new guidelines, now being vetted, will not satisfy either group of advocates, but they may move us closer to their stated goal of bolstering the rights of students accused of sexual harassment, reducing liability for institutions and requiring schools to provide more support to victims.

I’m not holding my breath that all sides will be satisfied soon. While I’d like to see all rapists arrested and prosecuted, this is not what happens and in itself is not justice. Survivors have critically important tasks—we need to acknowledge our betrayal, explode in anger, and mourn the death of who we were. Our biggest, scariest task is to offer ourselves the choice of forgiveness. Shall we forgive our offender? Shall we forgive ourselves for the ways we may have taken advantage of victimhood? Admit that we’ve sometimes accepted being held to lower expectations, dared people to give us consequences for bad behavior, or strategically failed to manage our emotions? Failed to explain to well-meaning people why we don’t want pity or why we’re not focused on “justice”—translated as revenge? Shall we do our best to practice forgiveness every day? This is our good, if unchosen, work.

Image: Stock Photo via 123rf.com.

Ruth Klassen Andrews is a writer, artist and activist living in southwest Michigan. She holds an MA in Conflict Resolution from Antioch University, is the recipient of the Golden Quill Award from the South Bend Tribune, and has published essays/short stories in Sojourners, the Christian Science Monitor and the literary journal Inwood, Indiana.  She performs with her band, the Winsome Hags.

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1 reply
  1. Vicki Campbell
    Vicki Campbell says:

    This was a disturbing article. First, I feel a lot of empathy for the author and her sisters, but what they were trapped in was not “victimhood”, it was post traumatic distress (I don’t like the word disorder), that they understandably needed to attend to, because what they experienced was very serious second hand trauma. Trauma is very real, very serious, and its one of the big impacts from violence of any kind, certainly including sexual violence – which is why it should be considered such a serious crime, for god’s sake. Second, there is no such thing as carceral feminism; it’s a made up term with a definition that no woman in their right mind agrees with or espouses. The whole point of the violence against women act and movement was to get society and the criminal justice system to start taking violence against women, certainly including sexual violence, as seriously as any other violent crime, and to have the same consequences. Those consequences include getting perpetrators off the streets for the safety of everyone, as well as issuing appropriate punishment or consequences for their bad actions and the harm that they’ve caused. No one thinks this will completely “resolve” sexual or domestic violence against women, but it could and certainly has mitigated it, and that is a very good thing. What happens to the perpetrators of violent crimes after they are taken into the criminal justice system is another issue entirely, and no feminist I know would argue with the notion that we certainly need a lot of prison and criminal justice reforms, and we need them now. But to equate the idea of taking physical violence against women seriously with the wholesale lack of sexual agency is the most offensive, sexist, and just outrageously victim-blaming thing I’ve heard in a damned long time. Thirdly, the way that anti-carceral feminists, to use the term feminist very loosely, talk about sexual violence (and only sexual violence) really diminishes the act, and makes it sound as though they see sexual violence specifically as somehow in a whole separate and lesser category than other violence – that is better responded to through some kind of mediation rather than arrest and jail time, because its apparently such a lesser crime, that anything more is just barbaric.

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