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More Policing Won’t Stop Gendered Violence


Recent months have seen a wave of protests in the UK against gendered and sexual violence. These vigils, demonstrations and school strikes were initially sparked by the killing of Sarah Everard and subsequent arrest of PC Wayne Couzens, but their focus quickly expanded to encompass sexual harassment in schools and the proposed new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The latter threatens, among other things, to put more victims and survivors of domestic abuse in prison for minor offences, ‘particularly women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities’, according to the organisation Women In Prison. These actions are part of a long tradition of feminist resistance to sexual and gendered violence and, in keeping with that tradition, display a deep awareness of how these forms of violence are widespread, treated as normal, and embedded in social structures. Protests of this kind urge us to look beyond individual bad actors to the institutional conditions that make gendered and sexual violence possible on a massive scale.

Participants in these protests often reject policing-centred responses, framing the issue in terms of the need for broad social change rather than increased criminalisation. However, the measures suggested by the Conservative government display a focus on intensified policing and incarceration that is profoundly out of step with the radical insights animating the protests. Examples include proposals to put plain clothes police in nightclubs, and parents being told to report their school-age sons to the police if they suspect them of having committed acts of sexual violence. This mismatched response extends to the official opposition too, although the preferred policies are slightly different – Labour suggest making misogyny into a hate crime. It has even been argued that this presents an opportunity for Labour to outmanoeuvre the Tories by appearing more strongly in favour of law and order ‘solutions’.

The protesters are right, though: policing is a dead-end for addressing sexual and gendered violence, and as feminists we ignore this at our peril. We will show how policing both perpetrates and perpetuates these forms of violence that it claims to address. In making this case, we are treading ground that has been skilfully explored by many anti-carceral feminists, especially feminists of colour, over the course of decades. Contemporary voices in this movement include Jackie Wang, Victoria Law, Andrea J. Ritchie, Elena Ruiz, Mariame Kaba, and Vanessa E. Thompson, as well as campaigns such as Community United Against Violence and Survived and Punished.

What do we mean by ‘gendered and sexual violence’? Gendered oppression is not just about the social power of men as a group over women as a group, but involves the sorting of human beings into gendered boxes and the enforcement of conformity to gendered ideals (or norms) of appearance and behaviour. These norms vary across social contexts but tend to be profoundly heteronormative, racialised, classed and ablist. Violence against those who do not conform to these ideals of masculinity and femininity, and against women and girls as members of the subordinated gender class, is normalised within this hierarchical system. This includes forms of sexual violence like rape, sexual harassment and assault. When we talk about gendered and sexual violence, it is this complex phenomenon we have in mind.

Next, what is ‘policing’? The essential characteristic of policing is the authorised use of violence and the threat of violence to control a population – to enforce the existing social order and punish non-conformity. We can distinguish between the police as the particular institution so named, and the broader array of institutions that (often working together) perform policing functions. These include prisons, border regimes, secret security services, militaries, and the industries that supply and profit from them. The term ‘carceral’ is often used to describe these institutions because incarcerating people – restricting their movement and segregating them from the rest of society – is central to their operations.

The police, in the narrower sense, is an obviously hierarchical institution in that it has a strict command structure with emphasis placed on obedience to orders from those lower down its ranks. This is something it has in common with many other institutions we have identified as involved in policing in the broader sense, such as the military and the prison system. As well as being internally hierarchical, it is regularly observed that policing operates to enforce various unjust social hierarchies in the world at large, perhaps most overtly those of race and class but also disability and others. Critical histories of policing show how these hierarchy-enforcing effects are not accidental but often provide the explicit rationale or purpose for the invention and development of policing institutions, technologies and practices.

With respect to gendered oppression, however, it is often thought that the situation is different. Here, it tends to be assumed that policing plays (or should, if it’s working properly, play) the role of mitigating oppression, counteracting a pre-existing or ‘natural’ vulnerability to gendered and sexual violence. Indeed, pointing to their alleged role as protectors of women is a standard response to any criticism of the police: ‘who would you call if your daughter was attacked?’

Feminists who share this perspective frame tackling gendered and sexual violence as an issue of ‘crime control’. The proposals mentioned above, such as putting plain-clothes officers in nightclubs, fall squarely within this ‘crime control’ framing. According to this view, policing plays the role of a preventative force against gendered and sexual violence, and a reparative role in bringing ‘justice’ when such violence has occurred. Implicit here is the caveat that, historically, policing has not been sufficiently active and effective in these roles and needs to ‘do better’.

Such a position is itself dangerous, obscuring the active and significant role that policing plays in perpetrating and perpetuating gendered and sexual violence as it actually occurs in our social world.

This is highlighted, in the first instance, by the many formally reported cases of gendered and sexual violence committed by police officers, among which the killing of Sarah Everard looms large. In a disturbing number of cases, police officers exploit their institutional power as police officers to commit gendered and sexual violence. Sexual abuse by immigration detention centre guards is also a well-documented problem.

Here, defenders of policing-focused solutions would likely point out that there is a distinction between individual police officers and the police as an organisation, or, even more broadly, policing and carceral institutions in general. It’s one thing to identify cases where individual police officers have acted badly, including by ‘abusing’ their institutionally-backed power. It’s another, further, step to say that the institution itself is implicated.

This further step is one that we as feminists must take. For a start, there is plenty of reason to think that a pervasive culture of sexualised (and indeed racialised) misogyny is entrenched within the police. This is not mere chance, but as many feminists have observed, is rather a common feature of hierarchical and militarized institutions. The police force doesn’t just happen to have a culture of sexualised misogyny; it has such a culture precisely because of the sort of institution that it is.

It might be thought that this analysis still highlights the wrongdoing of individuals within the police force more than policing itself. After all, it is those individuals who are perpetuating the misogynistic culture through their actions and interactions. In other words, we’re still looking at police officers doing their jobs badly; all we’ve shown is that lots of police officers fall into this category. The ‘do better!’ response still beckons.

In reply, we would note how grossly inadequate the responses from police forces tend to be when individual police officers are accused of committing acts of sexual and gendered violence. This includes both internal disciplinary responses and standard investigative responses: police accused of domestic abuse are a third less likely to be convicted than the general public. A former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner has described domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers as “epidemic” in scale, and concluded that “[i]t is about men in authority exercising power over women and it is about failure of leadership on an epic scale in policing.”

Talk of a “failure of leadership” captures the fact that the police are institutionally implicated in the abuse in question; however, it also understates the problem by suggesting that the leadership is simply not doing its job properly, by the lights of the institution. It makes more sense to understand the widespread and persistent inadequacy of these responses as amounting in practice to an institutional policy that sanctions this kind of behaviour. When an institution claims to oppose something but in fact makes it very easy for people to get away with doing it, and very difficult for those who attempt to challenge it, those claims ring hollow. Seen in this light, the leadership may be ‘succeeding’ in that it is doing exactly what it is meant to do.

Nor is the role of police forces limited to the passive sanctioning of sexual violence through inaction. In some cases, the perpetrators of gendered and sexual violence are police officers acting in the course of their official duties.

Ongoing inquiries have revealed undercover policing of left-wing organisations including womens’ rights groups, environmental campaigners, and the family of Stephen Lawrence. These operations include numerous cases of undercover officers forming long-term sexual relationships and even having children with women in the political groups they infiltrated. One woman affected likened her experience to “being raped by the state”; another, describing the apparent institutional support for these relationships as an information-gathering tactic, spoke of “a team of officers conspiring to rape”. The Police Spies Out of Lives campaign concludes that ‘institutional sexism is at the heart of these abusive deployments’.

It would be nice to believe that the active commissioning of sexual and gendered violence by the police was narrowly limited to particular intelligence-gathering operations. Maintaining this belief, though, requires an indefensibly arbitrary stance on what counts as sexual violence. Strip-searching, for example, can involve the forcible removal of clothes and physical penetration of the body with hands, and is practiced by UK police forces at a scale that cannot possibly be matched by reasonable suspicion that prisoners are carrying forbidden items. As argued in detail elsewhere, many (though not all) cases of strip-searching should be recognised as instances of sexual violence.

It might be objected that strip-searches cannot count as sexual violence because their perpetrators do not think of them as sexual. But even if this were an accurate description of police officers’ mindsets – which seems to us to be very much in question – this line of argument is at odds with any feminist analysis of rape worthy of the name. We know that people can commit sexual violence without thinking they are doing anything wrong, because what they are doing seems perfectly normal. This is precisely the upshot of these forms of violence being treated as ‘ordinary’ rather than ‘extraordinary’, particularly when committed against racially oppressed groups, as Christine Delphy articulated back in the 1970s. And we know that sexual violence can be at least as much about the exercise of power over a demeaned or demonised other as about sexual pleasure, narrowly construed, as for example in the use of rape as a weapon of war. Once we acknowledge these basic feminist points, it’s hard to deny that routine practices such as strip searches can amount to sexual violence, especially when they are experienced as such by the people subject to them.

In response to legal challenges on this issue, the police are likely to say that strip search powers are essential for them to do their jobs, and push back against any curtailing of their discretion to decide, in practice, in what cases it is appropriate. However, to the extent that it is true that authorisation to routinely commit this form of violence is a crucial item in the police (prison, secure children’s home, or detention centre guard’s) tool-kit, this rather proves our point. Acts of gendered and sexual violence may systematically (and, to the extent we take the police at their word, inescapably) be part of policing-as-usual. The role that policing plays in perpetrating sexual violence becomes yet clearer.

Policing also creates and reinforces structural vulnerabilities that place some people at heightened risk of violence at the hands of third parties. Examples of this include the criminalisation of various aspects of sex work, including the outlawing of practices that help make sex work safer, such as two or more workers operating together from the same premises, which – however mutually it is organised – falls foul of laws against brothel-keeping.

This means that sex workers are often unable to report assaults against them for fear of being charged with crimes themselves. Clients know this, and some are emboldened to threaten and to commit acts of sexual violence as a result. Toni Mac of the Sex Worker Open University describes this happening: “I told the guy to leave, or I’d call the police. He looked at the two of us and said ‘you girls can’t call the cops - you’re working together, this place is illegal’. He was right.”

Migrant women at risk of detention and deportation face similar or worse barriers with regard to an even broader range of situations, such as intimate partner violence or abuse by employers. In all of these cases, the threat of police action against victims of sexual and gendered violence creates a heightened vulnerability that can be exploited by perpetrators.

It might be argued that these examples highlight some grave problems with certain laws, but do not establish that there is anything wrong with policing as such. In other words, one could claim that the police are only as good as the laws they are tasked with enforcing, and acknowledge that some of these laws are unjust. This line of thought also points towards a ‘do better!’ approach, except now the targets of the exhortation are the lawmakers rather than the police themselves. The focus has shifted to a different part of the broad system of policing and punishment, which as we saw includes courts, prisons, and so on, in addition to police forces – but that broad system is still being positioned as a central part of the solution to gendered and sexual violence.

But we can make a similar point about a much wider set of laws. The power that perpetrators of gendered and sexual violence wield over their victims – the power that enables them to commit violence, often with impunity – is frequently economic power. This power is ultimately backed by policing.

Consider someone who endures sexual harassment at work for fear of losing their income and perhaps ultimately their home, or who endures abuse from their partner for fear of losing their housing and perhaps also their livelihood or access to their children. If this person could leave the job or the relationship and still be confident of meeting their basic needs for housing, food, and other essentials, their options for escape would increase and they would be less vulnerable to abuse and violence. A point frequently made by anti-carceral feminists is that pouring public money into policing takes away directly from the provision of a social safety-net for people in these situations – refuges, child support, and mental health services, for example. It is less often noticed that what ultimately shuts down such a person’s ability to meet their basic needs is the fact that they could not simply live in an unoccupied house, or take food from well-stocked supermarkets, without risking criminalisation.  It is policing as a social system – literal police, in the first instance, backed up by courts, prisons, and so on – that prevents people from doing these things.

Implicated here are not just one or two specific laws, but the whole structure of legal ownership which protects the private property of corporations and landlords. Given that enforcing this order of property has been a primary historical raison d’etre of the police, it is implausible to think that we could change these laws within anything like the framework of policing as it currently exists – or indeed the hierarchical social arrangements that policing enforces. In this sense, policing helps to produce and reproduce conditions of vulnerability to ‘unofficial’ gendered violence, such as intimate partner violence and sexual harassment. ‘As it happens’, writes the poet Anne Boyer, ‘the state has no monopoly on violence / just a silent partnership / with the family’.

Policing plays an undeniable role in perpetrating and perpetuating gendered and sexual violence, giving all feminists reason to firmly reject the ‘crime control’ responses that unite the government and the official opposition.

Despite all the arguments we have presented, it’s possible that some women might still believe an intensification of policing will make them safer from gendered and sexual violence in the here and now. Regardless of whether this counterfactual is plausible in some cases, we must be clear what the proposal here amounts to: slipping a few women (and given the way that race, class, disability, and other axes of oppression interact with gender, it will only ever be a few women) into the class of the powerful – which is to say, into the class whose dominance is shored up by policing. This is not justice. It is a dystopian vision of equal-opportunities domination which, as Andrea Dworkin put it in 1974, amounts to ‘a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.’ As feminists, we must hold out for something better: real freedom, for everyone, from the regime of normalised sexual and gendered violence we currently live under. Such freedom is something policing can never give us


Dr Koshka Duff is a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Nottingham and campaigns against police strip search abuse. She is editor of the recent collection, Abolishing the Police (An Illustrated Introduction). Her current research looks at how the derogatory concept of ‘the criminal’ functions to exclude dissenting voices from the sphere of recognised political contestation.

Dr Katharine Jenkins is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on social and political philosophy, especially feminist philosophy, critical philosophy of race, and the philosophy of sex and sexuality. She has written about topics such as gender identity, pornography, and rape myths.  

This article is part of Against the Carceral State: Verso Roundtable. Follow the link to see more articles in the series.