Oh, Mercy

The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence By Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners. BROOklyN, NY: Verso. 224 pages. $25.

The cover of The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence

SEVEN YEARS AGO, Aaron Coleman, who is currently twenty and a candidate for the Kansas state legislature, attempted to extort nude photos from a thirteen-year-old. When she refused, he circulated another nude photo of her in retaliation. Around the same time, he started bullying another girl, and persisted until she attempted suicide. Last December, months before he came to national attention, he hit and threatened a third woman, then his girlfriend, choking and slapping her in a hot tub after she joked about breaking up with him. After two of the women made their stories public, Coleman found defenders in the national media, who espoused the moral high-mindedness of forgiveness and compassion. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald invited Coleman to sit down for a sympathetic thirty-minute interview. “It has long been a staple of liberal philosophy that humans can and should be rehabilitated, not eternally condemned for bad acts, particularly those committed when very young,” Greenwald wrote in an accompanying essay. For his part, the candidate seemed annoyed that anyone was bringing this up. “I’ve moved on,” he told a relative of one of his victims. Left out of this discussion were the women Coleman had hurt. One said: “I feel good about speaking my truth, but I’m still very upset because he’s going to have some form of power. And I don’t think he has a right to have any kind of power.”

Conservatives have already declared that the #MeToo movement had “gone too far” in calling for perpetrators of sexual violence like the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to be denied positions of power. Now some on the left seem to have formulated an anti-feminist backlash of their own in response to similar requests. While the right focuses on naming women who complain about sexual violence as liars, sluts, or moral scolds, leftists have begun painting them as morally unacceptable—too punitive, too unforgiving, too mean.

Two new books from Verso, JoAnn Wypijewski’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo and Judith Levine and Erica Meiners’s The Feminist and the Sex Offender, can be understood as products of this backlash. Both open with accounts of the authors’ horror at the sentencing of sexual abusers on criminal charges—Harvey Weinstein in one instance, Larry Nassar in another. The books have different approaches—one concentrates on the criminal-justice system and formalized accountability measures, while the other addresses less easily defined cultural shifts—but both have the same enemy: #MeToo feminists.

The Feminist and the Sex Offender is subtitled Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence, but it focuses almost all of its energy on the latter half of this equation. Its authors argue that statues like the Violence Against Women Act, the Jacob Wetterling Act, and Megan’s Law impose undue burdens and draconian sentences on men convicted of sexual violence. Part of the blame, they say, lies with feminists, who have “played a large role in sketching the blueprint and supplying the parts that make the machine function.” Levine and Meiners assert that feminists’ efforts to acknowledge the harm and pervasiveness of sexual violence gave cover for excessive legal responses. They take aim at feminists who supported the Violence Against Women Act, feminists who supported the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines, and feminist lawyers seeking to establish civil penalties for revenge porn and stealthing, whose “hyperbole” Levine and Meiners see as responsible for the increasing criminalization of these acts. They argue, at times convincingly, that laws meant to criminalize rape and other gendered interpersonal violence do little to help the women who have experienced such violence; instead, these laws usually refer victims to uncaring and racist bodies like the police or criminal courts. “Absent thoroughgoing social change,” they conclude, “the law does little to protect people from sexual harm.”

Levine and Meiners are anti-incarceration thinkers who advocate on behalf of those convicted of sex crimes. They have each independently written books in the past condemning the concept of children’s sexual innocence—Levine’s Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (2002), and Meiners’s For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (2016). In The Feminist and the Sex Offender, they emphasize the inhumanity of what they call “the sex offense legal regime,” which includes prisons, Title IX tribunals, affirmative-consent standards, and age-of-consent laws. They call on their readers to “abolish the sex offender registry,” to “decriminalize child and teen sexuality,” and to “complicate consent.”

Levine and Meiners position themselves at the center of three movements that, they say, rarely intersect: feminism, prison abolitionism, and the small “registered citizens’ movement,” an advocacy group made up primarily of white male sex offenders and their female relatives. They bemoan the plight of sexual-violence perpetrators, who they say have been given insufficient sympathy by both the feminist and prison-abolitionist movements. “People in the broad prison-industrial-complex abolitionist movement often marginalize or even openly denigrate those convicted of sex crimes,” they write. But a problem emerges for Levine and Meiners’s argument that feminists and prison abolitionists should center the concerns of sex offenders: the sex offenders don’t want to work with them, either. “For many on the registry, feminism is public enemy number one,” Levine and Meiners admit. Nor do they want to make common cause with the prison abolitionists. “For white registrants, to join forces with the anti-prison movement would mean assuming a kind of kinship with Black folk,” Levine and Meiners write, citing this as a reason why these registrants won’t do it.

Jesse Mockrin, Caught fire and fury, 2019, oil on linen, overall 71 x 99".
Jesse Mockrin, Caught fire and fury, 2019, oil on linen, overall 71 x 99″. Courtesy the artist and Night Gallery

In their critique of feminism, Levine and Meiners attempt to place themselves in allegiance with Black-feminist thinkers who have criticized what they see as a white-feminist impulse toward “carceral feminism.” (The term was coined by the sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein in 2007 to denote the belief that imprisonment for sex offenders and perpetrators of sexist violence is a socially ameliorative and morally appropriate response to such violence.) Levine and Meiners cite work by Angela Davis and the radical-feminist group INCITE!, who have called for a greater integration of feminist anti-gender-violence efforts with prison-abolitionist efforts. “Women of color, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence, have become marginalized within these movements,” INCITE!’s 2001 statement reads. “It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system. It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.” But despite name-checking them, the authors do not seriously engage with Davis’s or INCITE!’s calls to integrate opposition to gendered violence with opposition to incarceration.

Levine and Meiners go back and forth on whether sexual violence is really the problem that feminists say it is. They alternate between making brief allusions to the pain of survivors and asserting that statistics claiming the prevalence of sexual violence are overblown. (Part of the problem with the statistics, they seem to think, is that criminal statutes include both forcible and statutory rape, the latter of which they argue should not be a crime.) But they are confident that, whether or not sexual violence is really a problem, courts and prisons should not be used to address it. The criminal-justice system, they write, is irredeemably racist, excessively cruel to the convicted, tainted by its historic and ongoing use as a tool for enforcing unjust social hierarchies. They cite a London-based movement called Reclaim Holloway, a women-led campaign that has sought to redevelop a former women’s prison into public housing and community services since the 2016 death of an incarcerated woman, Sarah Reed, in her cell there. “Inside prison, like other prisoners of color, she was thrown into segregation and denied medical care and essential psychiatric medications,” they write. But from the cruel injustice of her death emerged the imagining of a more humanitarian public use of the prison site. On these points—the racist sadism of imprisonment, the optimism of prison-abolitionist visions—they are lucid, even moving.

But there is something questionable about invoking the antiracist prison-abolition movement on behalf of sex offenders, a demographic who Levine and Meiners concede are the only incarcerated group to be proportionally white. And it’s never clear why the small, mostly white, and conservative “registered citizens’ movement” deserves to be at the vanguard of anti-incarceration efforts, as Levine and Meiners argue. There is something questionable, too, about Levine and Meiners’s invocation of the racism of incarceration in order to shield high-profile, wealthy white men like Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar from consequence. Without justifying prison or its cruelties, it is worth asking what makes sex offenders so much more worthy of sympathy to these writers than a rape victim.

To their credit, the authors spend one chapter analyzing alternative accountability practices that have emerged from Black-feminist activist spaces, such as “restorative justice” and “transformative justice,” along with other models of community mediation. Levine and Meiners praise these models for “bring[ing] everyone”—victims and rapists alike—“into the circle as a moral equal.” But they dislike alternative mediation methods when they come too close to demanding anything like consequences for rapists, for this, too, is what they call carceral logic—the logic, that is, of punishment or retribution.

In fact, almost all interventions on behalf of rape victims can be deemed suspect, according to Levine and Meiners. They do not like mandated therapy or psychological interventions for perpetrators; these “medicalize” the violence of the state. They are skeptical of #MeToo’s promotion and funding of civil litigation, which they see as ineffectual at best and at worst a distraction from the work of politics. They especially do not like university Title IX tribunals, which do not have criminal powers but can impose punishments like the removal of a rapist from a university. While praising Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for changing Title IX to make the process friendlier to perpetrators, Levine and Meiners lament that she did not go far enough. They say “she made a bad idea”—that is, accountability for sexual-violence perpetrators—“a little less bad.” Even with DeVos’s suggested lenience taken into account, the Title IX process is still, they say, too much like prison. “The carceral state is the carceral state,” they write, “whether surrounded by razor wire or covered in ivy.”

According to Levine and Meiners, even informal, noninstitutional responses to sexual violence can be part of the carceral state. One of the community accountability mechanisms they mention is the StoryTelling and Organizing Project, or STOP, an Oakland-based group that collects stories of ways that community members responded to sexual violence without calling the police. Among the stories collected by the group is that of Maria, a woman who discovers that her prison-guard boyfriend has been molesting her young daughter. Instead of calling the cops, Maria flyers his neighborhood, putting his name, his picture, and a description of what he did in plain view. Levine and Meiners find this gesture despicable. “Is her low-tech public shaming any better than the state’s sex offender registry?” they ask, implying that Maria’s nonviolent act of public anger and warning has the same punitive power as the prison system. “Where does information end and revenge start?” In this way, Levine and Meiners’s definition of “carceral” responses to sexual violence expands beyond recognition. Throughout their book, they argue extensively by analogy, making moral equivalences that do not hold up under scrutiny. An ivy-covered campus is not a prison. A flyer with a child molester’s name on it is not state surveillance. It is worth asking who such category collapses serve.

This tendency to condemn all forms of consequence or punishment for sexual-violence perpetrators as morally insupportable is part of an undercurrent running through their work: their discomfort with the public expression of female anger. They speak of being disturbed by displays of women’s anger over sexual violence, such as when the judge in the Larry Nassar case, Rosemarie Aquilina, gave the prolific child molester a sentence long enough to ensure that he would stay in prison for the rest of his life. “I just signed your death warrant,” they quote her as telling Nassar. “Was Aquilina giving other people in prison the nod to rape Nassar? Or kill him?” they ask. It’s a strained interpretation of her words, but Levine and Meiners are not listening in good faith. Suddenly, it is not Nassar, but a woman repulsed by his actions, who is guilty. They go on to paint this kind of anger at sexual-violence perpetrators as explicitly immoral: Payback “felt unsatisfying,” they write. “Indeed, wrong.”

Is anger a morally inappropriate response to someone like Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of children for decades with impunity? I don’t think so. It is difficult to imagine any form of restorative justice or rehabilitation that does not leave room for the expression of anger or injury on the part of the wronged. In their rush to demand “fairness” for perpetrators of sexual violence, Levine and Meiners seem to foreclose this part of the process. Where is the place, in their vision, for the victim’s anger at what has happened to her? For women who pride themselves on defending the indefensible, this is one kind of human ugliness that Levine and Meiners seem too scared to face: the idea that sometimes hatred is a justified thing to feel, and vengeance is a reasonable thing to desire.

IN THIS REGARD, Levine and Meiners have much in common with JoAnn Wypijewski, whose new collection of essays, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, collects a sampling of her writing on sex spanning almost thirty years. It contains essays on such disparate topics as HIV criminalization, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and accusations against Woody Allen. One essay is a paean to the romantic passion of Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who left office, and his wife, for the love of his Argentinean mistress; another is a friendly review of Levine’s book Harmful to Minors.

The book’s title makes it clear that, despite its wide-ranging subject matter, Wypijewski intends it as a retort to the #MeToo movement. Like Levine and Meiners, she argues mostly by analogy, suggesting that all of these different public controversies over sex and sexuality are symptoms of the same cultural pathology: the tendency to “panic” over sex. In her considerations of sexual violence over three decades, Wypijewski is remarkably consistent, if somewhat convoluted, in her assessment that victims are unjustified in their anger about sexual abuse, and that their anger furthermore represents a grave threat to democratic ideals and due process.

To make this argument, Wypijewski turns to fiction, hypotheticals, and inventive readings of social-media memes. She reviles Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”; she goes on a long, furious explanation of how it was racist when Twitter users assumed (correctly) that a New Jersey teen, who was given a lenient sentence for filming himself raping a classmate, was white. She spends several pages in an argument with a hypothetical overzealous campus feminist, re-creating what she assumes would be that woman’s arguments in order to strike them down.

Wypijewski proclaims herself a product of “the liberationist ’60s,” and in her writing on #MeToo, she identifies the problem exposed by the movement not as the systemic undermining of women’s safety, dignity, and bodily sovereignty by men, but as a broad lack of “sensual intelligence.” She disregards the argument that sexual violence is an injury to women as a class, suggesting instead that it is the result of a vast interior “mess” within the human soul. In the book’s title essay, Wypijewski recalls various sexual encounters from her past that she believes would be condemned by the #MeToo movement as exploitative or politically suspect. “My stories here, vestiges from a time before sex panic became permanent, are messy, not simple,” she writes.

Wypijewski sees herself as a defender of compassion and clemency for the accused. It is these virtues she alleges are missing from feminist responses to sexual violence. “Mercy is the scandal now,” she writes. Like Levine and Meiners, she is uncomfortable with calls for accountability, punishment, or consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence: she sees these as morally suspect. “The sympathetic aspect of the victim obscured the movement’s essential function,” she writes of anti-rape activism. “To assert vengeance as a social good.” Those who don’t like being the targets of sexual violence, in Wypijewski’s reasoning, need to toughen up. Recounting her own experience of being molested by a drunken priest when she was twelve, Wypijewski scoffs at the idea that the incident would be emotionally damaging to her. “Even now, as middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited cleric’s hand to the buttocks, I consider my own too-close brush with the cloth as just another scene from childhood,” she writes.

At her worst, Wypijewski, like Levine and Meiners, seems to present a liberal inverse of conservative demands on rape victims. Where the right insists that rape victims be sexually chaste—that is, virgins who are physically forced by a stranger—these writers seem to be establishing a left-wing demand for rape victims to be morally chaste: selfless, forgiving, willing to forego claims to have their own pain recognized. The worthy victim, as conjured by these writers, must not express anger, or any desire for revenge; she must not want her rapist to suffer consequence for what he did to her, and she must not make the severity of what happened too publicly apparent. Negative emotions are prohibited the rape victim, and so is mere pragmatism. She shouldn’t go to the police, and she shouldn’t take matters into her own hands. For all of these writers, it is illegitimate for women to express a desire to hurt people who have hurt them.

Who gets to be publicly angry, and whose anger gets to elicit a response from the social sphere, from the state? In their writings, Levine, Meiners, and Wypijewski emphasize nicer, more palatable emotions than rage or the desire for revenge. They want compassion, empathy, and second chances; they want deliberativeness and nuance. But they only want these things selectively, from women, and for men. Forgiveness, thoughtfulness, respect—these are demands that these books make of women who are survivors of sexual violence, not of the men who commit it.

Moira Donegan is a writer and feminist living in New York.