Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Centering Prison Abolition in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

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A second way that the visibility of criminal-justice oriented antiviolence movements has affected WGSS is the increased circulation of the affective economies of the prison-industrial complex within the classroom. The success of mainstream antiviolence activism (and other neoliberal movements such as the pro-choice movement and the gay marriage movement) has meant that undergraduate students arrive in the WGSS classroom with a particular understanding of what feminist and LGBT activism looks like. Not only does this mean that students tend to see a very narrow range of issues as falling within the terrain of feminist and queer politics, it also means that they link social justice to the language of tolerance, belief in equal opportunity, the resolution of conflict through authoritarian structures, and the desire to punish offenders. For example, students often voice the expectation that the WGSS classroom should be a safe space. Derived from antiviolence activism, the safe-space model seeks to build secured areas that are free of violence, whether a neighborhood, a community space, a shelter, or a classroom. However, the invocation of safe space often operates on a presumption that safety means the same thing for everyone and that violence derives from a clear, singular source that can easily be excluded. For example, the rubric of safety was often used to construct women-only spaces on the grounds that excluding men would eliminate patriarchy. Among other problems, this approach failed to acknowledge the ways that racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, and even patriarchy persisted in those spaces, making them unsafe for many women.

When invoked in the classroom, safe space can mean anything from a space devoid of oppressive language and behaviors to a space in which what one says will not be challenged. While many students experience university classrooms as violent places, safe-space discourse can level what are in fact very different experiences of danger and, in doing so, cater to the needs of more privileged students. For example, in my experience, white students often say that they are made to feel unsafe by conversations about racism that decenter their own experiences. In addition, students of color and gender-nonconforming students are often accused of being too aggressive when they speak, mirroring the ways that criminality is racialized and gendered. In general, the language of safe space prioritizes a specific experience of feeling safe over other objectives without a consideration of the ways that discomfort, risk, and vulnerability can be fundamental to the learning process. In making this point, I want to be clear that I am not saying that students should simply get over the difficult emotions that class material can elicit or that concern with feelings detracts from the intellectual rigor in the classroom, as some critiques of safe-space discourse seem to imply. My concern, rather, is with the way the language of safety becomes tied to ideas of policing, particularly when safety is understood as a stable and predefined state that can be guaranteed by institutions.

These invocations of safe space reproduce the affective economies of the prison-industrial complex in at least three ways. First, they define feminist and queer classroom spaces as spaces where individual security is valued over collaborative engagement. What it means to be safe is often not given much consideration, and the language of safety is frequently invoked to shut down rather than open up dialogue. The belief that safety is not only a right, but is the most paramount right mirrors the emphasis placed on security within dominant culture and reinforces the idea that safety is the property of an individual rather than something that is collectively made. Second, safe-space discourse reproduces a reliance on authoritarian figures (such as the professor) to resolve conflict. Just as we increasingly turn to the criminal-justice system to deal with violence, students increasingly turn to the professor to police other students’ behavior. This channels the pain or harm they might experience into a desire for protection and the reprimand of their peers. Third, in doing these things, the safe-space discourse forecloses the possibility of honest and meaningful dialogue about the complexity of power dynamics in the classroom and the emotions those power dynamics might elicit. Rather than explore the relationship between structural inequality and difficult emotions like fear, guilt, shame, and anger, the invocation of safe space stifles those emotions, preventing us from reflecting on where they come from and how we might be more accountable to each other.[29]

A third problem emerges in relation to these mainstream movements on the terrain of activism. While there is broad consensus that activism ought to be central to WGSS curriculum and scholarship, there is little agreement on what that actually means. Although interdisciplinary social-justice oriented fields have strong commitments to the communities they strive to represent, within WGSS the communities to which we are accountable are often difficult to define. As the case of antiviolence activism demonstrates, political movements organized around the interests of relatively privileged women and LGBT groups work to the detriment of the majority of women, queers, and trans people. Given these complexities, what does it actually mean to engage in activism on behalf of very diverse and complex groups of people? In some ways, a misreading of the framework of intersectionality has allowed us to sidestep this crucial question, particularly with regard to how we engage social movements. Often misunderstood as the need to include women and queer people of color, the language of intersectionality frequently enables pluralism. In the context of activism, this often translates into the idea that we should include and support the struggles of marginalized groups, but not necessarily that we should hold privileged forms of activism accountable for the harms they do. As a result, any activism is generally regarded positively, and the question of which social movements WGSS should align with is disregarded.

One of the most common ways activism is incorporated into the curriculum is through service-learning requirements. While in some contexts service learning can be a powerful experience, service-learning requirements frequently end up tying a component of education that is supposed to be about activism to nonprofit organizations. Often, the way the service-learning requirements are structured leads students to work in nonprofit organizations. For example, in order to receive credit, students often need a supervisor who guides them, evaluates their performance, and verifies the hours they have worked. This requirement is most easily met within an organization with paid staff, so, for example, it is very easy to get credit for a service-learning project within a battered-women’s shelter but very difficult to do so for decentralized movement work. Similarly, service-learning projects frequently must be completed within a quarter or a semester. This makes it easier for students to find placements within nonprofits than to engage in organizing work that might require a more long-term investment.

Service learning is frequently framed either in the language of voluntarism or job training, a conceptual slippage that signifies how neoliberal values have come to coopt activist components of the curriculum. For example, at the public urban university where I used to work, service learning was a strong component of both the general education curriculum and the WGSS curriculum. Many students completed their WGSS service-learning requirement by volunteering for battered-women’s shelters or rape crisis lines. These students went through the organizations’ volunteer-training programs and played the same roles within the organizations as other volunteers. Some students astutely observed that they were forced to pay to earn credit for volunteering, thereby increasing the financial burden on them. Meanwhile, large organizations with volunteer programs benefited from the free student labor we provided. In addition, because these larger organizations were the most visible, students tended to gravitate toward them. In contrast, smaller organizations that did not have an apparatus for volunteers tended to struggle to find things for students to do and often found students to be a burden in that they took up valuable staff time and resources. As a result, the majority of our placements ended up being within larger, more mainstream antiviolence organizations, as the structure we had worked best with them. Many students went on to pursue work in these organizations or related social-service professions, leading me to wonder if our program did not, in some ways, track students into working for the nonprofit-industrial complex. Notably, a number of students had strong critiques of organizations’ failures to address the root causes of violence. However, we, as a faculty, were largely ineffective at channeling these critiques into something productive, often leaving students feeling disillusioned with “activism” because the opportunities available to them were inadequate.

This is not to say that service learning does not in some contexts provide valuable educational experiences. My point, rather, is that service learning does not constitute activism per se and that the structures we create around service-learning requirements can reproduce many of the problematic dynamics within mainstream nonprofits. Even the very premise of giving credit for activism reproduces the logic of nonprofits, where activism is conceived of as paid work. This does not mean that we should simply confine education to the classroom or give up on having activist components to our curriculum. It does, however, mean that we need to create different structures, ask different questions, and expand how we think about integrating activism into our curriculum.

Part of the problem has been that activism is often defined by a stale dichotomy between theory and practice in which activism is reduced to doing something and theory is seen as thinking devoid of doing. In this context, critiques of mainstream social movements are often dismissed as too theoretical, and therefore impractical, or are met with defensive justifications that go something like: “But at least we are doing something.” These responses reflect the extent to which neoliberalism curtails our political imagination. After all, practicality is a social construction that ties us to the existing order of social relations and centers particular subject positions. For whom is criminalization a practical strategy and for whom is it a deadly one? Radical political thought pushes the boundaries of the possible, encouraging us not to do what seems practical today, but to build a world in which alternate possibilities become practical realities. In the context of WGSS programs, how do we teach our students not to just do something in response to violence against women, queers, and trans people, but rather to imagine and build a world in which that violence would be impossible? How do we start acting in ways that are practical in relation to the world we want rather than the world we have? And how do we do this in the context of universities that are shaped by neoliberal economic policy and values?

Toward an Abolition Pedagogy

Centering abolitionist analysis within WGSS offers an important avenue for re-envisioning our work. A growing movement to build a world without prisons, abolition rejects reformist approaches to mass incarceration in favor of dismantling the prison-industrial complex in its entirety. In “The University and the Undercommons,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney conclude by describing abolition as, “Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”[30] Moten and Harney’s provocation to not just abolish prisons but to build a society that renders prisons and the social inequalities they are embedded in inconceivable presents an important challenge for radical political projects located within university contexts. They point out how it is necessary for abolitionist projects to not just engage the prison itself, but to make visible and challenge the material conditions that make prisons imaginable. Rendering prisons unthinkable requires both denaturalizing the epistemological structures that underwrite incarceration and drawing attention to alternative epistemologies.

There is a growing body of scholarship that explores the experiences of women and queer and transgender people with the prison-industrial complex. A number of significant themes emerge in this literature. First, the prison-industrial complex specifically affects these groups in devastating ways. Women of color and queer and transgender people have a long history of being targeted by the criminal-justice system. The criminal-justice system disproportionately punishes gender-nonconforming people,[31] and new measures such as the war on drugs and quality-of-life policing have had particularly severe impacts on women and queer and transgender people. In addition, mass incarceration breaks up kinship and other social support systems, and it is frequently women who must do extra work to care for family members in prison and to compensate for economic hardships that the incarceration of a loved one produces.[32] Second, this scholarship shows the ways that the prison-industrial complex is itself gendered and sexualized. For example, the prison-industrial complex is an apparatus that polices gender, and criminalizing discourses frequently employ tropes of gender deviance.[33] Sex segregation within the prison system naturalizes the gender binary and subjects gender-nonconforming people to tremendous violence while incarcerated.[34] In addition, the economic conditions that give rise to the prison-industrial complex are deeply rooted in gender and sexual inequality. Third, women and queer and transgender people have specific visions of abolition that are grounded in their experiences with the criminal-justice system. These visions link abolition, gender self-determination, and an end to violence in a larger struggle for freedom, thereby expanding the sites where abolitionist struggle might be waged.[35] They also emphasize the importance of developing community-based strategies for addressing violence that do not rely on the criminal-justice system.[36]

This scholarship raises important questions for WGSS on the terrain of identity, pedagogy, institutionalization, and political vision. First, abolitionist movements offer insights into how WGSS programs might employ concepts of identity that defy neoliberalism’s depoliticizing effects and that instead rearticulate identity-based knowledge projects to radical movements for social change. Abolitionist perspectives require us to center identities that have been criminalized. From the vantage point of people who have historically been perceived as guilty, innocence is not a viable ground on which to build political claims. These experiences highlight the often deadly consequences of making rights contingent on innocence and expose the fact that innocence and guilt are socially constructed categories that hinge upon one’s relationship to the state, not on one’s own character or actions. Claims to innocence always rest on the presumption that someone else is guilty and, therefore, are inherently atomizing. In that abolitionist frameworks decouple innocence and claims to freedom, they make space for more collectivizing constructions of identity.

Feminist and queer abolitionist work has also centered the experiences of people who live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression. Drawing attention to this multiplicity requires an exploration of the interconnectedness of social movements that are often thought of as separate. For example, centering the experiences of women and queer people of color highlights the ways in which struggles for racial justice cannot be separated from feminism or sexual freedom. In this sense, the histories of women and queer people cannot be divorced from the histories of colonized peoples, formerly enslaved peoples, immigrants, workers, and disabled people—all of whom also experience oppression on the basis of gender and sexuality. Highlighting these connections moves us away from static, compartmentalized ideas of identity and toward thinking about identity in terms of processes of identification. As Stuart Hall argues, “Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning.”[37] Given the problems identified with categories like women and LGBT, Hall’s understanding of identity as a positioning suggests that we not abandon identity (as the critique of identity politics so often seems to imply), but rather that we consciously think about how we position the identities that organize our thinking. If within a particular historical context, feminist and LGBT politics have become sutured to a neoliberal political agenda that promotes prison expansion, how might we sever those connections and rearticulate those identities to more radical political projects? How do we build knowledge projects organized through the rubric of identity that do not reproduce the logics of neoliberalism or rely on categories produced by the state?

Abolitionist frameworks offer at least three key insights into these questions. First, following Hall’s analysis, it is crucial to recognize that identity-based knowledge projects do not simply produce and convey knowledge about particular identities. Rather, they are actively engaged in the process of situating identity categories in particular ways within a political and historical terrain. This is evident, for example, in the ways that we make choices about what constitutes a feminist or queer issue, what political options are viable, who the communities we are responsible to really are, and what gets defined as “our” history. Embracing abolitionist struggles brings into focus the fact that Black radical history and the history of anti-capitalist movements are fundamental to feminist and queer history. It also facilitates reclaiming histories of radical feminist and queer organizing that mainstream movements often efface.[38] Not only do these histories offer alternative models of activism, actively identifying with them consciously roots WGSS within a radical historical tradition.

Second, in our engagements with identity, it is necessary to foreground struggles for self-determination rather than simply attempting to make a series of static identity categories visible. One concrete way we might do this is by moving away from representational approaches to diversity. Within the neoliberal university, one of the pressures of institutionalization is the framing of identity-based work in a language that celebrates difference without interrogating power. In this context, the call for WGSS to engage the experiences of marginalized groups such as women of color, queer people of color, transgender people, and disabled people often gets reduced to representing those experiences within the curriculum. While engaging a diversity of experiences is important, representational approaches tend to fix identities, rendering them singular and static, while failing to question the social forces that shape our ability to see and read the world. For example, critiques of the prison-industrial complex from feminist and transgender abolitionist activists make visible the limits of representation. These activists insist that the goal is not better representation of the needs of women and transgender people within criminal-justice policies through gender-responsive prisons or special prisons for transgender inmates, but rather the dismantling of a heteropatriarchal system that curtails gender self-determination.[39] By shifting the frame from representation to gender self-determination, these activists struggle not for visibility and tolerance within the confines of an oppressive structure, but rather for the most expansive possibilities of who we could become if structural constraints were transformed.[40]

Finally, abolition leads us to recognize identities not as discrete but as relational. Emphasizing the relationality of differences makes visible how different experiences are in fact interconnected. As historian Elsa Barkley Brown argues in relation to women’s history, “[m]iddle-class white women’s lives are not just different from working-class white, Black, and Latina women’s lives. It is important to recognize that middle-class women live the lives they do precisely because working-class women live the lives they do. White women and women of color not only live different lives but white women live the lives they do in large part because women of color live the ones they do.”[41] In the context of thinking about the relationships between the university and the prison-industrial complex, Erica Meiners has noted that Brown’s analysis is particularly relevant as “people in prison live the lives they do in large part because people outside of prisons live the ones they do.”[42] The acknowledgement that identities are always constituted in relation to other identities brings into focus a politics of solidarity that is not grounded in sameness, but rather in being conscious of and responsible to our own positionalities.[43] This is important because it potentially reshapes what it means to identify as queer and/or feminist by moving us away from static ideas of who we are to more dynamic questions about what we do and how we choose to do it. Because I think that we cannot underestimate the role that WGSS classes play in shaping students understandings of what it means to be queer or feminist, these approaches offer students a different way of identifying with these terms than the ones put forward by mainstream movements.

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  1. For an excellent example of an alternate approach to dealing with questions of safety and violence in the classroom, see Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, “In Our Hands: Community Accountability as Pedagogical Strategy,” Social Justice 37 (2011/2012): 76–100. [Return to text]
  2. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses,” Social Text 22. 2 (2004): 114. [Return to text]
  3. Andrea Ritchie, “Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color,” The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, ed. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (Boston: South End Press, 2006) 138–156. [Return to text]
  4. Beth E. Richie, “The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women,” Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, eds. Meda Chesney-Lind and Marc Mauer, (New York: New Press, 2003) 15-36; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “You Have Dislodged a Boulder: Mothers and Prisoners in the Post Keynesian California Landscape,” Transforming Anthropology 8.1‐2 (1999): 12–38. [Return to text]
  5. Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer Injustice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  6. Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “It’s War in Here”: A Report on the Treatment of Transgender and Intersex People in New York State Men’s Prisons (New York: Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2007); Dean Spade, “Compliance is Gendered: Struggling for Gender Self-Determination in a Hostile Economy,” Transgender Rights, eds. Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006). [Return to text]
  7. Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got,” Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, eds. Nat Smith and Eric A. Stanley, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011) 15-40; Julia Oparah, “Maroon Abolitionists: Black Gender-oppressed Activists in the Anti-Prison Movement in the U.S. and Canada,” Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, eds. Nat Smith and Eric A. Stanley (Oakland: AK Press, 2011) 293-322. [Return to text]
  8. Incite! 2006; Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, Alisa Bierria, and Mimi Kim, eds., “Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence,” Social Justice 37.4 (2011/2012). [Return to text]
  9. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, (New York: Columbia UP, 1994) 395. [Return to text]
  10. Bassichis et al. 2011. [Return to text]
  11. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, How ‘Gender Responsive Prisons’ Harm Women, Children, and Families (2007); Rose Braz, “Kinder, Gentler, Gender Responsive Cages: Prison Expansion Is Not Prison Reform,” Women, Girls and Criminal Justice (2006): 87–91; Sylvia Rivera Law Project 2007; Bassichis et al. 2011. [Return to text]
  12. Spade 2006. [Return to text]
  13. Elsa Barkley Brown, “’What Has Happened Here’: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics,” Feminist Studies 18 (1992): 298. [Return to text]
  14. Erica Meiners, keynote lecture, symposium on “Abolition Pedagogy: Critical Prison Studies and the Neoliberal University,” University of California, Berkeley, California, 14 Oct. 2011). [Return to text]
  15. Mohanty 2003. [Return to text]