Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime
79 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2009 Last revised: 14 Oct 2010
Date Written: October 15, 2009
Over the past several years, feminism has been increasingly associated with crime control and the incarceration of men. In apparent lock-step with the movement of the American penal system, feminists have advocated a host of reforms to strengthen state power to punish gender-based crimes. In the rape context, this effort has produced mixed results. Sexual assault laws that adopt prevailing views of criminality and victimhood, such as predator laws, enjoy great popularity. However, reforms that target the difficulties of date rape prosecutions and seek to counter gender norms, such as rape shield and affirmative consent laws, are controversial, sporadically-implemented, and empirically unsuccessful. After decades of using criminal law as the primary vehicle to address sexualized violence, the time is ripe for feminists to reassess continued involvement in rape reform. This Article cautions feminists to weigh carefully any purported benefits of reform against the considerable philosophical and practical costs of criminalization strategies before considering making further investments of time, resources, and intellect in rape reform. In advancing this caution, the Article systematically catalogues the existing intra-feminist critiques of rape reform and discusses reasons why these critiques have proven relatively ineffective at reversing the punitive course of reform. The Article then crafts a separate philosophical critique of pro-prosecution approaches by exposing the tension between the basic tenets of feminism and those animating the modern American penal state. Finally, it discusses why purported cultural and utilitarian benefits from rape reform cannot outweigh the destructive effect criminalization efforts have on feminist discourse and the feminist message. The Article concludes that feminists should begin the complicated process of disentangling feminism’s important anti-sexual coercion stance from a criminal justice system currently reflective of hierarchy and unable to produce social justice.
Keywords: Crime, Criminal Law, Rape, Rape Shield, Feminism, Criminology, Penal Theory
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation