Book of the Week: In an Abusive State

Joanna Bourke praises a 'must-read' on rape

July 3, 2008

Poor, helpless woman!" lamented a lawyer in 1901. The "monstrous crime" of rape, he excitedly proclaimed, pursues women "like a nightmare". Was it right that women should be forced to "shun every alley and fly from every bush lest lascivious eyes be on her and unbridled, brutal passion block her way? Of all the hobgoblins abroad in the night ... there is none so hideous as the stealthy form of the lecherous brute that leaps forth out of the darkness and drags defenceless woman to her ruin."

More than a century later, the fear of sexual violence is still a part of women's lives. It is no irrational panic. One in every five women in the UK will be sexually abused in her lifetime, and we should not forget that some men will also experience sexual violence. Yet the legal system has failed us. In the 1970s, just one in three reported rapes resulted in a conviction. Today, the figure has dropped to one in twenty. Is it any wonder that there is immense interest in understanding violence and eradicating it? What can this new book on sexual violence tell us?

My first response on being sent Kristin Bumiller's book In an Abusive State was: does Duke University Press not want anyone to read it? Can you think of a less engaging subtitle than How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence? I stifled a yawn before turning to the first page.

Yet this is one of the most invigorating and challenging books I have read for years. It is a "must-read".

Bumiller does not mince her words. She accuses the American feminist movement of being implicated in the development and growth of a highly policed state. Feminist campaigns against rape have been infected by neoliberal ideologies, effectively undermining their original, radical impetus to empower women. Instead of seeking comprehensive reform, contemporary campaigns against sexual violence have individualised the problem, and minority and immigrant women - the chief victims of sexual violence - have suffered as a consequence. To paraphrase the subtitle, neoliberalism sucks.

For Bumiller, state-led coercion will always fail to reform society. In the context of rape, one of the effects of appealing to local and central government control has been the grotesque criminalisation of a large section of American men. From the late 1970s, "crime control" has become a particularly effective way of reinforcing other forms of discrimination against minorities. While feminists have long publicised the fact that women have more to fear from their fathers, husbands, boyfriends and neighbours than other "hobgoblins abroad in the night", the criminally focused "war against rape" has targeted poor men from ethnic minorities. In the US, for instance, African-American and Latino men are routinely subjected to police harassment and, if they find themselves in court, are guaranteed to receive harsher penalties than more socially privileged offenders. Critics who question the way this "war against sexual terrorism" is being conducted risk being accused of being soft on crime and hard on women.

But neoliberal approaches to rape are also tough on victims. In the US, it is mandatory for the police, doctors and social workers to report all instances of sexual and domestic violence to higher authorities. This has harmed rather than helped victims. Many minority women find that speaking out about violence from men within their own community has fed racist prejudices and become a form of self-harm. For these women, the terror caused by the threat of rape can be significantly less than their trepidation of increasing police presence on their streets or even inside their homes. Reporting violent menfolk to the police often leads to dual arrests (because the woman was attempting to defend herself). Mandatory reporting also opens the door to visits from personnel from child welfare departments, scrutinising every aspect of a woman's mothering practices. In stark contrast to feminist calls to listen to what oppressed women are saying, under this new model of social control the voices of victims are muffled beneath a barrage of administrative and therapeutic languages, all claiming to possess a pre-packaged knowledge of what the victim "really needs". These knowledges operate in the vacuum of race, ethnicity, class and even gender.

The early feminist movement recognised some of these problems. Their response was to establish women-run refugees and shelters to support victims. In recent years, Bumiller documents, these shelters have also been co-opted by neoliberal ideologies - again, against the interest of victims. This argument is less novel. Indeed, it is made more cogently by feminist theorist Carine M. Mardorossian in "Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape", published six years ago in the journal Signs. Both Bumiller and Mardorossian lament the increasing bureaucratisation and professionalisation of rape crisis provision. The increasingly regulated nature of the provisions and the desire for stable funding has forced these organisations to adopt the languages and practices of state control. In a period where welfare systems are being dramatically cut, the lives of women seeking help from these organisations are scrutinised to an ever-increasing extent to ensure that they are conforming to a particular model of the self-supporting nuclear family. It just does not work for many women.

If a woman's case ends up in court, things only get worse, with victims of sexual violence appearing as "witnesses" of their own attack. Their performance is scrutinised to the highest degree. Every mannerism becomes crucial: clothes, hairstyle, posture, accent and tone of voice all take on immense significance. Meanwhile, jurors, defence counsel and judges expect a much higher level of resistance than required by law. They also require a greater degree of consistency in rape testimonies than they require from victims of other violent crimes. Both victims and jurors attempt to fit the story into their expectations of what rape "really is like", but most rapes simply don't resemble what we have been led to expect from television dramas or lurid newspaper reportage.

Controversially, Bumiller urges feminists to move beyond the criminalisation model. Of course she is not arguing that criminal penalties against rapists should be abolished or reduced. Indeed, she is very much aware that many violent men are simply given a "slap on the wrist". Rather, Bumiller argues against relying on policies of punitive incarceration that ultimately fail to deter further violence against women. Instead, she makes a plea for tackling the source of the problem, which is pervasive social and economic discrimination against women and their dependants. This section of her book is far too brief, and I was left asking for more detailed and precise recommendations. But Bumiller has taken the first step in a much bigger project: she has convincingly identified a major dilemma in our responses to sexual violence. We may not agree with everything she argues, but it is refreshing to read a book that so clearly demands that we clarify and rethink our positions.


It was as an undergraduate that Kristin Bumiller, professor of political science and women's and gender studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, discovered her interest in social justice, empowerment and community engagement, which has formed the bedrock of her research ever since.

In her teaching, she underscores the importance of educational opportunities, respect, and community acceptance among former prisoners. One way she does this is by bringing together students and individuals incarcerated in a correctional facility. This, she says, "enables abstract questions about social justice to be brought into the realm of personal experience" while providing "as much or more academic challenge" for students.

Bumiller, who recently visited Queen's University, Belfast, is intrigued by the parallels between high incarceration levels in disadvantaged US communities and post-conflict communities in Northern Ireland. Her research examines how the rise in criminalisation and incarceration rates in the US and the UK has led to a growing number of second-class citizens who find it a struggle to rejoin their communities after release.

Although her work makes many demands on her time, Scruffy, her English springer spaniel, makes sure that Bumiller takes some breaks. Bumiller says she enjoys taking walks with her companion.

- Lucy Wheeler

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