CONTENT WARNINGS: This article discusses police brutality, domestic violence, rape, and violence against women, violence against sex workers. Sensitive or traumatized audiences, be aware. If you are experiencing domestic abuse, please contact The Hotline.
We have all seen the episodes of Law and Order: SVU where a victim rebuffs the offers of help from the officers until her life depends on their saving. Let’s be honest, we’ve probably all taken in some of SVU’s trauma porn, possibly in six hour chunks on cable television.
The notion that violence against women is best treated by police intervention is not a new idea and it may even sound particularly pleasant to those of us who enjoy a certain amount of privilege. In the last year, with stories of alleged rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw and the education we’ve received from Black Lives Matter activists, we are seeing that there are people who simply cannot depend on the police to protect them.
If a woman is disabled, neurodivergent, black, Latina, queer, trans, a sex worker, or any religion other than Christian, or any combination of the above, then data shows she is at an increased risk of police violence. We know that transgender women are 2.6x more likely to experience intimate partner violence than cis women. We know that LGB people are experiencing record amounts of IPV-related homicides, and that of the LGBT community, 50% of survivors will be people of color.
However, shows like the recently lauded Jessica Jones on Netflix don’t show us survivors who fit this profile. Instead, most shows, including the much praised MCU’s feminist hero, position thin, white, cis women as the sole survivors of domestic abuse. The only black women on the show are either killed for the sake of Jessica’s storyline or are completely background. The show includes an early example of fatphobia to let women who aren’t thin know that this is not their story. They do not belong.
Marginalized women are virtually always left out of the spotlight when we discuss victims, especially people who work within the sex industry. Stoya’s recent tweets about being raped and assaulted came with admonishments from certain corners of the internet, wondering why she was telling Twitter instead of the police. This is carceral feminism at work.
We should ask ourselves: who does carceral feminism help? Is it just white women? Well, not entirely. It may be men. Studies have found that increased legal options for women have led to a decrease in abusive men being murdered by their partners to escape violence. However, we’ve also found that seeking legal retribution against a male abuser does not, in fact, lower a woman’s chance of being murdered or facing increased violent retribution.
Despite an exponential increase of men in prison, women are not safer. The percentage of domestic violence murders has not gone down. We are still being beaten, raped, and murdered at alarming rates.
So why do shows position carceral feminism as the right choice? The facts tell us that Indigenous women are more likely to be raped and abused, why are they not featured front and center in these shows as survivors? We have an immediate reaction to sex industry workers like Stoya telling us about their rapes and it is not to believe them. It’s often to question whether a sex worker can be raped in the first place. And we have seen that increased policing has not put a dent in the numbers of violence against women.
Why do we pretend that the police are our friends?
I think because it’s easier for non-victims to then absolve themselves of their responsibility in community policing. Going back to Jessica Jones, her abuser, Kilgrave, is only perceived as an abuser by those he has abused. This is true to real life, but replication is not critique, and by reproducing these scenes of trauma porn, we are upholding a status quo of who victims of gaslighting and intimate partner violence are and what they should do. Shows like Jessica Jones place the burden of stopping future abuse solely on the shoulders of those who have been abused.
When you get people admonishing Stoya for allegedly not reporting to the police, you can see a similar mindset at work.
I’m going to be honest: I have no idea if Stoya reported or not. It’s not really for me to know. If she chooses not to expose herself to the trauma of a trial as a woman who works within the sex industry, I perfectly understand that.
We need to reexamine narratives that push carceral feminism as a solution just as we need to reexamine narratives that place the burden of stopping abuse on the shoulders of survivors.
Am I saying shows like Jessica Jones and Law and Order: SVU can’t exist? Of course not. In the case of Jessica Jones they may be very well written and directed. However, these narratives are not pushing the boundaries of how we treat survivors of rape and abuse. We are not challenging ourselves to do better with these stories. I want to see us try harder and reach farther and achieve a piece of media that can thoughtfully deal with abuse, rape, and most importantly, surviving.
Until then, I will remind my feminist friends:
Carceral feminism is not intersectional feminism. It harms the most marginalized of women. It ignores the danger police present to women of color, transgender women, sex workers, neurodivergent women, and disabled women.
We as a society must come together to support victims of violence and our support must return agency to them. We must allow them the freedom to decide how they want to deal with their trauma.
A survivor is only obligated to live.