Set us free: why I’m an abolitionist rape survivor

As talk of prison abolition has (surprisingly and thankfully) come into the mainstream recently, a question that has come up often has been: “what about the rapists? How are we going to deal with them?” The question is based in a series of misconceptions: that people who commit serious crimes will be sent to prison, that putting perpetrators in prison protects future victims, that this is what survivors want.

Though I can speak only from my own experience, I think it’s worth writing down (as someone who has been harmed by rape) what one survivor actually wants.

What I want is for people to know that police and prisons only strengthen white-supremacist masculinist dogma; that becoming complicit in the victimization of others keeps the system in place for all of us; that we can never win by expanding the power of the state to control and punish. What I want is for us, collectively, to figure out how to interrupt the cycles of harm, to move beyond the repetitive violence of our current society. What I want for myself is to heal — to let myself for once deserve a home, food on the table, a handful of people to love without fear — what I want is nothing that prisons can provide.

Naming the harm (gendered violence)

The first image that haunts me is of a male cousin, a teenager at the time, in charge of looking after me in the afternoons: in a side room off the 補習班, gray couch, gray linoleum, sunny through always-tangled hanging vertical blinds. I was almost five. He didn’t penetrate me, the first time — just moved me against him in a way I didn’t understand but found unpleasant, and sticky.

Later he did (penetrate me), and between those first two times I didn’t stop him, which I understood to be my key failing. I didn’t have the words yet to describe what was happening so the images don’t have a coherent narrative — I mostly remember the blood (mine) and the smell (sickly sweet), and terror and pain and figuring out how to turn off my body and the pain so I wouldn’t give in.

But it shattered my illusions: that I was inherently valuable, that the world could be safe, that I wasn’t stupid and careless. I started growing a shame I haven’t shed yet, assuming that I was damaged because he had raped me, assuming he had raped me because I was damaged. In retrospect what I wanted and needed then was understanding, tenderness, and support, adults to listen and to tell me they’d try to keep me safe, that I was a person whose autonomy was worth upholding. What I experienced was intertwined systems of silence: fear and shame around sex in general; taboos against suggesting not only that people experience rape and abuse but that people we know and care about might be rapists and abusers; the notion that blood ties come first, even at the expense of one’s own well-being. In the cause of silence each of us paints our own fear, and my family’s rendered me immobile, unable to process or to progress.

By the next time I was literate. I was fourteen and in love with a girl and nighttime; he was two years older and a tenderhearted boy, sensitive, a musician. We would steal poetry from the bookstore and write songs together, he whispered and touched me and I would flirt even though I knew he liked me. That night he brought a knife and told me he was living in the present now, seizing the day, told me I was a whore but it was okay he still loved me. He had a new haircut and ran his fingers through it before pushing the knife against me, pushing with one hand and pulling me with the other. I hit him in the face which made him furious and he pushed me down to fuck me, pinned me down with his hands and shoulders and chest and legs, there was the edge of his knife on my skin with him inside me. I lay still and didn’t move and kept my eyes open and stared at him. He told me he was a lover who lasts, and he was, a machine, it went on forever, but my sense of freedom/equality/confidence had already been killed so it didn’t matter when he stopped or when he pulled out of me finally, or rammed back in harder for more. I hadn’t moved, I couldn’t move, I was on my back on the concrete and he slid down and rested his new haircut between my legs where he had fucked me, a tender lover, like it hurt him too. Did it count if I liked him?

And there were other times but they’re not worth enumerating. It’s not the trauma of a single brutal experience that hurts most but the ubiquity of this violence: having to exist always in fear of assault and annihilation, knowing you and those you love can be extinguished by anyone at any time.

Naming the other prong of the harm (prisons and policing)

The prison is a key component of state’s coercive apparatus, the overriding function of which is to ensure social control.

— Angela Davis, Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation, 1970

I think that one thing that remains constant for me is that the system—the prison industrial complex—isn’t broken. The system of mass criminalization we have isn’t the result of failure. Thinking in this way allows me to look at what’s going on right now in a clear-eyed way. I understand that white supremacy is maintained and reproduced through the criminal punishment apparatus.

—Mariame Kaba, Towards the Horizon of Abolition: A Conversation with Mariame Kaba, 2017

It’s appealing, at first, to think we can get justice for ourselves and accountability for those who have harmed us by punishing them physically. As a survivor I’m told that prisons are there to keep me safe; my greatest hope is supposed to be incarceration for my perpetrator.

But it’s critical to always scrutinize whose interests are being served, especially when we’re being told about the limits of what’s possible. Whose interests are served when radical critiques of state-sponsored violence get defused, petrified, and melted into a larger mainstream depoliticized feminism — a mainstream feminism friendly to capitalism?

Prisons and policing:

→ enforce capitalism (the system oppressing us all)

Capitalism commodifies almost everyone, turning each of us into a commodity that we ourselves must sell in the labor market while the profit from our work is captured by someone else. For the system of capitalism and the suffering it requires to stay in power, the state must wage violence (with people inside and outside its borders) to ensure compliance. One method of this violence is to apply a racial hierarchy to the capitalist system, one that whispers to people that as long as you are not Black, you have a chance to escape the dehumanization of capitalism. This is clearly implemented in the United States' current state-sponsored violence of prisons/policing — while it targets communities of color in general, it is centered in anti-Black racism.

For a much better explanation of this, see this series of graphics 🕶

→ don’t stop rape

According to RAINN, of every 1000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to law enforcement, 46 lead to arrest, 9 are referred to prosecutors, 5 lead to a felony conviction, and under 5 lead to incarceration. Most victims of sexual assault (including me) choose not to go to the police, and most rapists do not go to prison. If the strategy has been to end rape through a criminal legal process, it hasn’t worked.

Further, the fact that prosecution and incarceration of abusers is seen as the proper response illegitimizes and erases survivors who choose not to participate in the system.

→ both perform rape directly and enforce gendered violence

Prisons and policing sexually violate people by design — when we expose a population to policing or sentence people to prison, we understand that part of the punishment is sexual assault. For example: rape by prison officials and other prisoners; strip searches of both prisoners and people who visit them; cavity searches driving down the street; patdowns during stop-and-frisks; systemically-condoned police rape.

Policing and prisons also enforce gender binaries: one function of prisons is to create and maintain rigid boundaries between people (race, gender, class, and more). By rigidly enforcing these boundaries, prisons isolate and punish people who don’t conform to existing gender norms.

→ endanger and criminalize particular survivors

Those most vulnerable to sexual violence by individuals are often at highest risk of state violence, so survivors can face violence on both fronts simultaneously. Many survivors are targeted and revictimized by the criminal punishment apparatus, rather than supported and protected by it. 230,000 women are now incarcerated in the United States, and the majority have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before arrest. In order to eradicate both personal and state violence, we must build pathways for ending violence that ensure safety for survivors without strengthening the criminal punishment system.

For much more, see Victoria Law’s 2014 piece in Jacobin and the magnificent Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology.

→ solidify patriarchy

Feminism requires structural change and is a fight to end domination and oppression. The fact is that sexual assault is not committed by psychopaths or deviants of our social norms but by exemplars of our ideals, of our society, of our politics — men are defined as aggressive, dominant, powerful, and women are defined as passive, submissive, powerless; and rape is a logical consequence of this system of definitions. It’s not an aberration or an excess or an accident, it is as designed by the culture we were all born in. A system (the prison industrial complex) whose key features are oppression and domination cannot be the core strategy to prevent violence; one oppression does not justify another.

→ give people an excuse to just kill Black folks

This alone should be more than enough to dismantle any institution.


Prisons and policing normalize (and thus perpetuate) violence and injustice, which allow us to normalize racism, poverty, patriarchy, and ecological destruction — intersecting oppressions that then contribute back to the creation of a violent world. There is no way to use violence to resolve a conflict without planting seeds of future violence. To refuse violence is a commitment toward the healing of those who came before us, and an investment in the liberation of those who will come after.

Okay but what does that mean

So how do we move beyond the repetitive violence of our current society — the violence we reproduce by harming each other, then denying the harm?

Abolition isn’t only, or mainly, about unfunding the cops and eradicating prisons: it’s about clearly seeing the systems we currently have in place to address harm, and that they are actively creating the next cycle of harm. Interpersonal harm is a fact of human reality — we can’t avoid being harmed and harming others, and abolitionists don’t claim we can. Abolition is about envisioning and building the structures that we need in place of the ones that are failing us.

We are not either saints or sinners, evildoers or victims — each of us is a human like other humans, shaped by systems of harm, occasionally (intentionally or unintentionally) harming other humans. Abolition is a hopeful vision that means each harm done is a chance to transform each of us, our relationships, and our communities; to build real trust and safety; and to grow into the world that we deserve.

How are we beholden to and beholders of each other in ways that change across time and place and space and yet remain?

— Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, 2016

I don’t know yet, but hope to learn and practice: extremely intelligent and thoughtful people have been doing excellent work on the page and on the ground for decades, centuries, millenia; imagining and working for a world without violence.

Selfishly, me

Recovery from trauma requires creating and telling another story about the experience of violence and the nature of the participants, a story powerful enough to restore a sense of our own humanity to the abused.

— Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity, 1998

What I actually want is to learn what forgiveness lets us release; to use time to heal what seems too painful to forgive; to look back at my traumas and understand how they shaped me; people beside me to reflect with; something deeper and more nuanced than just hating them. No dimension of the struggle is abstract — it touches us in every part of our bodies and every part of our lives.

Above all

We cannot become complicit in the victimization of others. Abuse happens, and it’s real and it’s not justified by oppression; but more violence cannot be the answer to violence. We have to help develop resistance strategies that don’t inadvertently keep the system in place for all of us. We have to ensure that our model of liberation doesn’t become the model of oppression for others.

In this struggle we face the same enemies: powerful old business interests, wishing to keep a cheap labor pool and threatened by the prospect of oppressed peoples' economic independence; new tech-company interests that draw advertising revenue from the former; the erasure of oppressed peoples' political and historic past, which makes each new generation of fighters appear as an abnormality; trivialization of the issues themselves, sometimes even by their advocates when we fail to connect them with the deeper issues of our moment of social justice and in history. But if one of us is caged, all of us are.

Together, to stop all of the systematic abuses, we have to unlearn the passivity we’ve been trained to over thousands of years — and most importantly in freeing ourselves we must refuse to imitate them, we must not internalize their values and we must not replicate their harms. To create a world where we can use our holy human energy to nourish our holy human lives, to create a world without enforcers or arbitrary law; to create a world, a community on this planet (or others) where instead of lying to survive, we can tell the truth and flourish. Set us free.


Excellent things to read/watch/listen to on abolition and sexual violence: