State Violence Against Women: Why It Matters

My latest blog post here at C4SS dealt with violence against women. One commenter seemed puzzled. He argued that in some significant areas men face greater amounts of state violence than women, and then asked “Why the focus on women? If you’re not an evil sexist pig, you’re just against violence, no matter the victim.”

Many, perhaps most, victims of state violence are men, and that state violence is worth opposing. Why is raising the issue of state violence against women relevant, in that case?

Violence against women has a particular oppressive role in our society. First, let’s address the violence that is committed in a decentralized manner by non-state actors. In America, violence against women in the domestic sphere has largely been made invisible, been ignored by the state’s justice system, and has in some cases even been explicitly aided and abetted by the state. Meanwhile, decentralized violence against women in more public spaces has served to keep women as a group in a state of fear and to consequently limit their freedom of movement and their sexual autonomy. Ask a group of women and men what they do to protect themselves when they walk at night, and the vastly different responses along gender lines will show the type of gender biased fear of violence that exists in this society.

Furthermore, both in the past and in some other societies today, violence against women has been institutionalized to keep women in a state of subordination. This can be seen with things like witch hunts, violence against feminist protesters, and bans on adultery. This is overt state violence against women, and it is crucial to understanding both sexism and state violence.

However, because cultural norms surrounding violence against women primarily address violence in public spaces by strangers, and Western feminists have focused the bulk of our consciousness raising efforts on violence in the private sphere, state violence against women is largely invisible in our society. While it may be less prevalent than state violence against men (And considering under-reporting I don’t think we can know that it is), state violence against women remains a serious problem that ought to be addressed.

There are myriad examples of state violence against women. In the immigration detention system, women are sexually assaulted and guards use their power over detainees to cover it up. Sex workers and suspected sex workers, mostly women, face harassment, threats, and sexual violence from police officers. Often, their possession of condoms is treated as a sufficient basis for harassing and caging them, as a recent report from Human Rights Watch revealed. Sexual assaults by police officers have been documented in a variety of detailed reports, including Driving While Female. This piece from INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence documents and analyzes some particularly appalling cases of sexual violence by police officers. Women in prison often face sexual violence, with this violence made invisible by calling it a “strip search” rather than what it is: sexual assault. This is why Angela Davis argues that strip searches constitute the “routinization of sexual assault.”

I could continue to list off and document examples, but I don’t think I need to. The reality is that state violence against women happens and that gender and sex play a role in the structure of that violence. Pointing this out does not make you a “sexist pig.” But being outraged when people attempt to fight it does.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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