Non-carceral approaches to #MeToo

September 15, 2018

Original Source:

On not contributing to carceral feminism through punitive demands for high-profile cases of sexual assault and harassment

A version of this paper was presented at the Utopian Acts conference at Birbeck, University of London. It contains mentions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, structural racism and sexism, and the criminalisation of vulnerable populations by the criminal justice system.

My main field of research is masculinity, sexual violence and the media, primarily looking at the #MeToo movement and how it challenges constructions of hegemonic masculinity. In doing this work, I realized how much survivors of sexual assault need to be validated and heard, and how much of feminist discourse around violence against women relates listening to survivors to punishment for abusers. I don’t think connections between those two things are quite as straightforward as they seem. As a survivor myself I recognize this rage and necessity for punishment, but I also know that current systems of punishment do not fix the structures I want to dismantle. I am not a scholar of prison abolition, but this conference has given me space to consider that the #MeToo discourse is often carceral, and attempt to combine my knowledge of masculinity and sexual violence with decades of scholarship about prison abolition. In the following paragraphs, I will contextualize the #MeToo movement within a larger harmful narrative of carceral feminism, lay out my argument to challenge such a narrative, and recommend approaches that attempt to go against carceral feminism and center the survivors.

Last October, The New York Times and The New Yorker published in-depth investigations on decades of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Actresses as big as Ashley Judd provided statements, and anonymous company officials asserted that there at least eight settlements were reached to keep Weinstein’s actions out of the public eye. On April 2018, the writers of the articles, Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twhoney won the Pulitzer prize gold medal for public service for “explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, including allegations against one of Hollywood’s most influential producers, bringing them to account for long-suppressed allegations of coercion, brutality and victim silencing, thus spurring a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women” (The New Yorker, 2018).

The cultural and social impact of both articles are undeniable. On social media, survivors bonded over having suffered similar assaults, which resulted in the boosting of the grassroots social media campaign #MeToo, originally created in 2006 by Tarana Burke as a way to “help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing” (Burke, 2017). The mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement through high-profile assault allegations brought vital conversations about sexual assault, sexual harassment, healing and justice to the public eye which helped to “de-stigmatize the act of surviving by highlighting the breadth and impact of sexual assault worldwide” (Burke, 2017). The #MeToo hashtag and movement also resulted in more allegations against Weinstein, other powerful Hollywood men and men in adjacent industries like publishing and journalism (TIME Magazine, 2018). While perhaps a “global reckoning” is still in construction, it is evident that the Weinstein allegations started a domino effect in society, mainstreaming the conversation about consent, power and sexual assault.

There have been many critiques of how #MeToo has been co-opted by white feminists and celebrities at the cost of de-centering the survivors Burke originally sought to help with the campaign, which were specifically young women of color from low-wealth communities. Burke herself has expressed concern about the size the campaign has taken in the months after Alyssa Milano popularized the hashtag on Twitter. She said: “Part of the challenge that we have right now, is everybody trying to couch everything under #MeToo.”

My argument for abolitionist approaches to #MeToo consists of two main points. The first point is that we are currently at a critical point of the conversation about sexual assault and harassment, where collective consciousness is being formulated and co-constructed. Brigittine French argues that our collective memories of shared events can emphasize “unequal social orders”, and link “authoritative truth claims” with historical facts (French, 2012). This means that the conversations we are having now about high-profile sexual assault cases can shape our collective memories and whether we accept or reject oppressive structures. It is obvious to me that the powerful men accused within the Me Too movement won’t be affected by mass incarceration, but the cultural messaging around criminality and punishment can affect the most vulnerable demographics in society.

Which brings me to my second point, that punitive carceral approaches to sexual assault can validate the prison industrial complex, which is a system that criminalizes and re-traumatizes the people Burke sought to center in the first place. I will go deeper into this argument in the next section of this paper.

The argument for prison abolition in cases of sexual assault

To explain my argument for this approach, I will draw on Victoria Law’s Against Carceral Feminism, which explains why and how carceral feminist approaches to violence against women can result in more violence against women. Law writes that a feminist approach that asks for more policing, and more punitive sentencing for men who abuse women “does not acknowledge that police are often purveyors of violence and that prisons are always sites of violence. Carceral feminism ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence” (Law, 2014).Within the context of domestic violence, Law also points out that emphasizing policing and punishment for abusers as policy can take away funding from resources that provide safety and support to survivors such as shelters, public housing and welfare (Law, 2014).

More specifically in the context of sexual assault, the criminal justice system both in the US and the UK have processes that re-victimize rape survivors (Wheatcroft, et al., 2009). In the UK, a 2009 study found that mythologies around rape and sexual assault are still “prevalent and strong, and are used to further destroy already fragile victims” (Wheatcroft, et al., 2009). In the US context, a legal and political dissection of existing sexual predators’ laws showed that current legislation “justifies apolitical, individualized, state‐centered explanations for and responses to gendered violence” (Corrigan, 2006). In other words, current laws against sexual violence are used to “consolidate state power rather than create social change” and feminist reforms that squarely critique gender, culture, or the family are dismissed (Corrigan, 2006). In short, current laws and processes in place to protect sexual assault survivors place too much emphasis on punitive approaches and policing, and not enough emphasis on changing culture, keeping survivors mentally and physically safe and independent from their aggressors, and supporting survivors after the assault. A comparative study between five countries (Australia, Canada, England, Wales and Scotland and the United States) revealed that only 6.5% of sexual violence cases end in conviction (Daly & Bouhours, 2010). The current criminal justice systems routinely disbelieves survivors, re-traumatize them, do not deliver justice and do not protect them.

Carceral feminist approaches to violence against women can also end up criminalizing survivors. According to the organization Women in Prison, 53% of women in prison in the UK report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood while 46% of them report having suffered domestic violence (Women in Prison, 2017). According to Law, in New York state “67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person,” while in California a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. Sixty-seven percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children.” (Law, 2014). As Angela Davis argued in Are Prisons Obsolete?, prisons reflect and further entrench the deeply gendered structure of the larger society (Davis, 2003).

The MeToo hashtag and the chain reaction it caused made clear how the internet and social media have become its own community, where survivors have space to talk about assault, abuse and harassment. While social media companies still have a long way to go to make those spaces truly safe, the conversations taking place about the allegations can have consequences in smaller communities: whether survivors are believed or not, whether survivors are criminalized or ostracized for speaking out, etc. These are social truths and consequences that are being co-constructed by the media and the public while these big cases are highly visible. As French argues, shared memories of events like these can confirm harmful structures in society like patriarchal gender hierarchies, the prison industrial complex, and societal ideas about punishment that do not rehabilitate or foster safety for survivors.

Feminist rage is important and making abusers be accountable for their actions and the harm they caused is urgent, but we need to make sure systems of accountability we support don’t further criminalize women and other marginalized groups, and further entrench gender inequality.

But how can we apply non-carceral frameworks to such big cases?

Applying abolitionist frameworks to highly visible cases is difficult, especially because most of the men involved in #MeToo allegations are powerful enough to not have to go to prison at all. It’s also complicated because the #MeToo space is both abstract and too big; as I previously argued, these cases could potentially affect our whole society. These horrific instances of gendered violence are now part of our popular culture, which is a space that is difficult to define — it’s all of us as a society, but we know that some people retain more power than others.

For the sake of trying to simplify #MeToo (or at least characterize what and who I am talking about), I am defining it here as (1) the survivors who broke their silence about the abuse suffered, (2) the public consuming and reacting to allegations and contributing to the conversation, online and offline, (3) the media that exposed the allegations and/or helped spread them and continue to mainstream the topic, and (4) the abusers and those complicit in the abuse.

I think coming up with clear demands that are non-carceral and that center the survivors is essential to creating a counter narrative to carceral feminism and patriarchal attempts at redemption arcs of abusers in the public eye.

With these intentions, I turned to people who have been doing abolitionist work for decades; INCITE is a network of radical feminists of color organizing to end state violence and violence in homes and communities. INCITE has a myriad of resources that teach how to build a system of community accountability that doesn’t depend on the state or the prison industrial complex.

INCITE’s framework for community accountability.

Using INCITE’s guidelines while centering survivors, and considering the scope of #MeToo, these are some recommendations I came up with for demands that do not depend on the criminal justice system. This model requires that everyone in the community commits to addressing harmful behavior in a society, which is why this is definitely a utopian idea. An abolitionist approach requires a complete overhaul of the current culture, and the creation of a society that truly cares about survivors, a society that would definitively make it extremely difficult for powerful people to abuse their power in the first place.

Applying INCITE framework to #MeToo


(1) Zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment;

(2) Zero tolerance policy for people using their power to abuse and harass more vulnerable people;

(3) Zero tolerance policy for people using their power to cover up their harmful actions.


(1) Online communities like Twitter and Facebook must commit to victim’s safety; this means being mindful of triggers or harassment online. This goes for bystanders and the corporations allowing hateful and triggering content to be posted without consequence. Social media corporations should be accountable for allowing hateful and triggering posts on their platform, and survivors should be able to exist in public safely.

(2) From the top down (from entertainment companies to the audience — with the caveat that recognizing certain part of Hollywood hold more power than other), we must all commit to victims’ physical and emotional safety. For example, known abusers should not be allowed to attend events like award shows, and audiences should keep institutions accountable by engaging with them online to call them out if abusers are invited;

(3) Known abusers should no longer be employable in the entertainment industry. Their ‘second chance’ should be in another industry where their abuse is known and safeguarded for;

(4) Survivors must be listened to — their needs can wildly differ from one to another, and this must be understood and taken into account. Their versions of ‘justice’ must be considered, and they should be given space to speak about the assault(s) they suffered.


(1) Monetary compensation for survivors that take into consideration what they lost, career-wise, emotionally, and physically, because of the assault and/or harassment. For example, if victim couldn’t work in X project because the assaulter was there, she should be paid that salary with interest. If abuser is able to offer monetary compensation (and in the case of most of these men, they are), they should give their victims money;

(2) House arrest;

(3) Take abuser from the situation that gave them power to abuse, strip them of any power that might allow them to continue. In Weinstein’s case, he would never be allowed to work in films again, in Louis CK’s case he should not be welcomed into stand-up clubs ever again. This would both work as a safeguard to the victims, and as a direct consequence of power abuse — if you abuse power, you do not deserve it;

(4) Rehabilitation programs that encourage healthy types of masculinity and educate on the topic of consent and bodily autonomy, rather than the rehab programs Louis CK and Weinstein engaged in that misunderstood “sexual assault” for “sex addiction”.


(1) Being intentional with asking for consent when in a sexual context, respecting boundaries, and being radically honest about desires and non-desires. This might seem small, but implementing consent-talk is important to differentiate consent from lack of consent in our communities and beyond;

(2) Speak openly about consent and bodily autonomy, and when possible (and safe), intervene when non-consensual touching or sexual harassment happens;

(3) Disrupting punitive discourses with suggestions that center survivors and what they need to get justice and safety.

These are only a few demands that I think are important to challenge both patriarchy and carceral feminism. I will admit that these demands are difficult and it would require a huge change in culture. Already, we can see media organizations disregarding the safety of survivorsaudiences giving standing ovations to known abusers and men publicly arguing that #MeToo has gone too far (I refuse to link this piece). Survivors have barely been heard, or believed, and abusers have hardly come up against consequences for their actions, so we have a long, long way to go.

However, making feminist demands that are utopian in nature can make what we are fighting for clearer than when we negotiate within the current system. I always argue that while I care about justice, my overall goal is to eradicate sexual violence altogether, which is a utopian endeavor that demands we radically re-imagine society as one that values and protects survivors. The structures we are challenging with #MeToo are complex and entrenched, and naming clear demands that do not put the most vulnerable people at risk is essential and urgent feminist work.


Corrigan, R., 2006. Making Meaning of Megan’s Law. Law & Social Inquiry, Volume 31, pp. 267–312.

Daly, K. & Bouhours, B., 2010. Rape and Attrition in the Legal Process: A Comparative Analysis of Five Countries. Crime and Justice, 39(1), pp. 565–650.

Davis, A., 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press.

French, B. M., 2012. The Semiotics of Collective Memories. Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 41, pp. 337–353.

Law, V., 2014. Against Carceral Feminism. Jacobin Magazine, October.

Wheatcroft, J. M., Wagstaff, G. F. & Moran, A., 2009. Revictimizing the Victim? How Rape Victims Experience the UK Legal System. Victims and Offenders, 4(3), pp. 265–284.

Women in Prison, 2017. Key Facts, London: Women in Prison Org.

June 12, 2019


December 17, 2020