Why I’m skeptical of efforts to criminalize the sabotage of birth control

***UPDATED to fix Tressie’s twitter handle. Cuz that was embarrassing.***

Men sabotaging women’s birth control is A Thing.
It’s a form of abuse, an act of taking control over her own body away from a woman. Women suffering from domestic violence are often additionally victim to this as well as other forms of abuse, by men trying to keep them from leaving the relationship (which for obvious reasons is much harder when you’re pregnant or have children in the house), or sometimes just because it’s another form of control and DV is all about control. It is obvious therefore that sabotaging women’s birth control and other forms of reproductive coercion need to end, victims of this need to be able to seek justice, and perpetrators need to be made accountable.
Which of course means that now that a Canadian case has made a lot of people notice that this is A Thing, they want to criminalize it, based on the argument that the sexual assault laws in the U.S. would never suffice by themselves to persecute abusers for it*. Sounds sensible: if you think that the criminal justice system works even remotely well, then it makes sense to think that if someone commits an act of violence, they need to be sent throught the CJS for it. But this really does require the assumption that the U.S. legal system is just (or at least “close enough” to just to make it work more often than not)and therefore that criminalization will work as intended.

I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical, because when I read this twitter exchange between Lauren Chief Elk (‏@ChiefElk) and Brienne of Snarth (@femme_esq), I couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth of many of the points, if not necessarily their immediate applicability to the wider U.S. culture**. I’m skeptical, because I tend to come at these things from a harm-reduction-based perspective, and I’m not convinced that this will actually reduce rather than increase harm. I’m skeptical, because cultural myths play a huge role in the ways laws actually end up being applied.
For example, the Stand Your Ground laws don’t actually allow victims greater leeway in self-defense (see: Marissa Alexander***) but rather allow already privileged people to get away with violence even more. This is because cultural myths are such that black men and women are always seen as the danger, and white men and women always as the defenders of civilization. And how does this work with birth control sabotage? Our cultural myths claim that women are baby-crazy, and men don’t actually want kids; that women are more likely to be ok with an unplanned pregnancy than men (there’s how many movies with that plot? The one where an uncomplicated het-relationship gets derailed by pregnancy that switches the woman into “settling&nesting” mode while giving the guy a midlife crisis?); that women are more invested in committed relationships than men (see: ball-and-chain), and thus more likely to use desperate measures to prevent a breakup; etc. Hell, google “tricking into pregnancy” and see how that works out. As Brienne points out in the twitter dialogue, the cultural narrative is of a woman trapping a man rather than vice versa. Even the Daily Beast article linked at the beginning of this essay acknowledges this with a link to an article discussing NBA orientation for rookie players, in which the following quote appears:

They wanted us to see the dangers out there. They warned us about groupies poking holes in condoms, having hidden cameras and stuff like that. The temptations are hard to turn down, but if you don’t, you are subject to big problems.

And remember, we live in a society in which there are people convinced that women stealing sperm out of discarded condoms is some sort of epidemic (google “spermjacking” if you really want to know more about this; I wouldn’t recommend it tho).
So what I’m saying is this: when you’re operating within an extremely unjust legal system, you have to be exceedingly careful how you use it; in this case, the question is: how likely is it that criminalizing BC sabotage will be effectively used against actual abusers, rather than against women by e.g. dudes not wanting to pay child support?
BC sabotage is going to be a situation of he-said-she-said almost always, and “he said” will be always given more weight than “she said”, especially when other oppressions like race and class also work against the woman. I can imagine this even leading to greater reproductive coercion, if a guy who doesn’t want a kid threatens the pregnant woman to either get an abortion or be accused of spermjacking or some shit like that. I can also imagine that many women won’t report BC sabotage: consider the stigma BC has in this country (Sandra Fluke anyone? And she was a very privileged woman); consider the cultural myths about who sabotages BC; consider the “bitches be lyin'” trope. Basically, all the reasons ever mentioned in #IDidNotReport will figure in here as well, and we might well be increasing the potential for legal harassment of victims of DV, by giving their abusers another tool to subvert for their own needs.

Mind you, harm reduction is not the sole reason to criminalize something. The main other uses of criminalization in justice are punishment, normalization, process, and deterrence.
I reject the idea of punishment as a goal of justice, in general. Punishment of an offender as a goal of criminalization/incarceration (rather than a means towards another goal) relies on the notion that responsibility lies solely and entirely with the offender; it requires belief in a self-causing will, in the notion that an action is entirely and solely caused by the offender’s creation of a desire and opportunity to act as they did. I don’t accept this belief, because it goes against the evidence that shows us that the world outside our heads shapes our desires, priorities, and opportunities. Punishment for the offender and only for the offender (because how to you incarcerate social structures?) is an individualist erasure of the structural causes of violence.
So while accountability for the harm caused by an action is a sensible part of justice, punishment for its own sake is not. Making someone “pay the price” for a crime to society or to the victims has to actually be of value to society or the victims, and locking someone up does not, per-se, produce any value to society/victims. It can only do so as a means to a goal. Which brings us to the other aspects.
Despite the saying “morality cannot be legislated”, a law actually is a normative statement. And the fact that plenty of people can’t tell the difference between legal and moral (nor the difference between illegal and immoral)seems to indicate that normalization happens, if not immediately than into the next generation at least. Basically, if you allow or forbid something and the world doesn’t come crashing down (or significantly inconvenience anyone with social visilibity), people get used to it and start thinking of this as the new normal. So folks saying that it would make a statement that society doesn’t condone reproductive coercion if it were criminalized do have a point. But as a main reason to criminalize it, it seems not enough, given that it would also be a weak normative statement. Not because a law is a weak normative statement per-se, but because laws that go against strongly entrenched cultural myths have their normative function subverted. E.g. rape being illegal does mean the cultural idea is that rape is bad, but it’s entirely abstract; not only do some actual rapes get defined out of the rape category, the culture also creates a lot of exceptions (the most jarring example is prison-rape: people generally don’t deny it’s rape, but they treat it like a joke or a deserved punishment). I suspect the same will happen with these situations: even if we’d achieve a normalization of the belief that reproductive sabotage is a thing and a bad thing, the cultural mythology around it will subvert it so that real instances will be treated as not-it, or as exceptions where it’s somehow ok.
Process means simply giving someone a clear, pre-set way of dealing with something. Now, I don’t think any engagement with the American CJS is easily understandable, simple, etc. but having a set process and a set of legal tools to deal with something is usually preferable to no procedure at all. This is likely the strongest case for criminalization, because it’s useful and helpful to be able to take out restraining orders, have a concrete, codified thing to accuse your abuser of, and have other rules you can lean on when it’s hard to try to think your way out of a situation. But acknowledging this absolutely requires remembering that this will be useful primarily to those with educational and class**** privilege; who don’t make up the majority of DV victims.
Deterrence is/can be an acknowledgement of the way social structures shape choices. To deter means to change the environment in which a choice is made, and introduce a desire (the desire to avoid being held accountable) to hopefully outcompete the desire that would be satisfied by the criminal action. These changes can lead to reductions in the occurrence of a harmful act, and can therefore be actually useful. As such, deterrence is not inherently flawed the way punishment is; but it needs to actually accomplish the environmental and internal changes, or else it’s bullshit. A law as deterrent tends to only work if the likelihood of getting caught & convicted is high, or at least thought of as high. Laws that have low rates of perpetrators getting caught and getting convicted make lousy deterrents: if you get away with it sometimes, you learn that you can get away with it always, even if it’s not true. Works like that for texting-and-driving, for underage drinking, for pot-smoking-while-white, and because of rape culture it also works like that on rape. My suspicion is that given the difficulty to prove sabotage and the power-disparity in literal he-said-she-said situations, arrest and conviction rates would be low. So, not an effective deterrent in the long run.

So to sum up: there are positive things that criminalization could possibly accomplish, but these effects seem to be overall fairly small and doubtful given the current cultural narratives. And the way selective application of these protective laws protects aggressors more than victims, there are potentially many negative consequences to victims. The potential for abuse, for being directed against victims of domestic violence, and for even increasing some forms of reproductive coercion is pretty big given the current social narratives. I worry that the negative effects far outweigh any positive ones.

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t do anything about this problem, but I’m more and more thinking that putting the tools for defense in victims’ hands rather than in a severely broken, anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-PoC criminal justice system is the better approach at harm-reduction and empowerment at this time. So, some suggestions along those lines, to help free women from reproductive coercion without risking anti-woman side effects:

1)increase free and gatekeeper-free access to as many form of birth control (both the contraceptive and post-conceptive kinds): controlling women’s reproduction happens often with the cooperation of laws on birth control which make access complicated, time intensive, expensive etc, thus preventing women in DV situation from discreetly controlling their reproduction and from choosing options that would be less manipulable by a violent and controlling partner. Give women more options and access for BC, and in many cases you take away the means by which an abuser can coerce their reproduction.

2)Destroy the cultural myths that harm victims of reproductive coercion: these would the the ideas that consent to sex is consent to pregnancy; that reproductive coercion is something women do, rather than something abusive men do; etc.

3)Provide better safety nets and community support for single pregnant women and single women with children. When pregnancy and children no longer function as traps keeping the women from leaving (e.g. because there’s no women’s shelter that will accept all her kids), the utility of reproductive sabotage as insurance against leaving will diminish, and with it the value of this action to abusers.

None of those will stop all or even many cases of reproductive sabotage immediately; but neither would criminalization. I just think that the suggestions above would also have fewer negative side effects on already victimized women.

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*it’s complicated, but basically Canada has some stricter ideas about what is or isn’t legally consent than the U.S. does. The Canadian case that kicked off this interest in criminalizing reproductive coercion was one in which the sabotage was treated as aggravated sexual assault because even though the woman consented to sex, she didn’t consent to unprotected sex. Basically, at least in Nova Scotia, it’s (as the case stands now) legally true that consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. As this legal article explains, that’s not true in the U.S. because of that nasty thing called “generalized consent”, plus legal-structural shit that went over my head because IANAL.

**the conversation includes the following tweets:

[Lauren Chief Elk @ChiefElk
Decolonizing Anti-Rape Law and Strategizing Accountability in Native American Communities via @andrea366 http://communityaccountability.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/decolonizing-antirape-law.pdf ]
[Lauren Chief Elk @ChiefElk
Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and Sovereignty via @sarahdeer http://turtletalk.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/deer-decolonizing-rape-law.pdf ]
The papers deal with the question of sexual assaults and tribal courts. They’re amazing and I find these immensely interesting and good material for thinking about anarchist communities, because not being able to deal with sexual violence is a major flaw of every idea (and praxis) of anarchist community I’ve ever encountered. But most women in the U.S. don’t at the moment live in the kinds of communities that would allow for analogues to tribal court justice.

***relevant and timely, on Friday there will be a discussion on Marissa Alexander and how DV laws backfire on minority women:

[Lauren Chief Elk ‏@ChiefElk
So on Friday we’re going to talk about shifting anti-violence, criminalization of DV, & Marissa Alexander w/#FreeMarissa. Get ready to join.]

****class privilege is very relevant, even if you “fake” it. In this essay on poor people and expensive stuff, Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) recounts the story of her mother helping people in the community with bureaucracy; and how her mother had an expensive outfit to do it which seemed to gain her “respectability” from the office folks, at least enough to make it possible to get stuff done where the people her mom was helping couldn’t.

Reactions to Nelson Mandela’s death

Nelson Mandela died yesterday. This prompted reactions pretty much everywhere, because if nothing else, the whole media-accessible world agrees that he’s a memorable and comment-worthy man. The most frequent reactions so far seem to fall roughly into three categories: right-wingers who hate his guts; right-wingers trying to appropriate him; and liberals trying to appropriate him.
This is where, usually, the “the liberal appropriation is worst” or”at least the right-wingers are honest” sort of stuff goes, but that’s crap. These are all crappy reactions to the death of Mandela. Yes, the right-wingers are the least wrong when they scream about what a communist and terrorist he was, since a)he worked closely with communists and believed freedom from poverty was a human right; and b)was the leader of a “terrorist”*/guerrilla organization before his arrest. But lauding them for that is a bit like lauding the fucker who smeared shit all over the bathroom for getting some of that shit into the toilet as well: the right-wing calls everyone they hate a terrorist and communist, sooner or later they were bound to hit someone who actually can be labeled like that with decent accuracy.
I’m not gonna bother saying much about right wing politicians appropriating Mandela. Because what exactly can I say about e.g. Santorum using his name in his battle against healthcare for poor people that doesn’t just speak for itself? I’ll just leave this handy list here, and also this UK-themed text-image**, and move on.
As for liberals appropriating Mandela? That has two parts. The first is people like Bill Clinton “remembering” Mandela as a friend, when he was still on the terrorist watchlist during Clinton’s presidency; when his administration did a lot to harm the new South Africa. I’m not saying Clinton didn’t think of himself as a friend, but you know… he was probably that kind of a friend; the kind that makes enemies superfluous; and now? Now he gets to bask in reflected glory. Swell.
In the long term, the second part is even worse. The second part is where the owners of history re-write Mandela’s biography as more palatable, squishy, cuddly, liberal-friendly. Now begins the same process that scrubbed all radicalism from the memory of MLK; the kind that takes the fact that after release from prison he chose not to be an agent of vengeance but of reconciliation and extends it beyond all reason to calling Mandela a symbol of “the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts” as a New York Times piece just did. No. As a note circulating the internet said:

Nelson Mandela used peaceful means when he could, and violent means when he couldn’t. For this, during his life they called him a terrorist, and after his death they’ll call him a pacifist — all to neutralize the revolutionary potential of his legacy, and the lessons to be drawn from it.

And his Unwillingness to reject the sometime need for violent resistance “when other forms of resistance were no longer open” is not the only part of his legacy that’s being erased. His left-wing politics, his anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism*** are all being erased (which gets us back to the part where a man like Bill Clinton gets to remember his version of Mandela; in public, for the public memory), smoothed out to make him more palatable as a hero for the still-existing kyriarchy.

There’s a 4th kind of common reaction to Mandela’s death: the people who are trying to set the record straight. Writers and commenters reminding people of the “radical histories of Mandela and MLK”, reminding them that “Mandela Was No Care Bear”, that he was an Unapologetic Radical, that he “will never, ever be your minstrel”, that “Conservatives Can Own Reagan, But You Don’t Get Mandela”, that “leadership knows how and when to follow and how and when to be unpopular; that resistance can not always be non-violent; and that perseverance is the cornerstone of revolution”. A few of the people doing these corrections do so because they think his radicalism and acceptance of sometime violence was a flaw that must be remembered; far more (I hope) will point out that sometimes oppression cannot be ended solely by non-violence, solely by clinging to civility and a moral high-ground built entirely to favor the status-quo in maintaining itself.

P.S.: A Mandela Reading List I didn’t manage to stuff anywhere into the body of this essay.

– – – – – – – – – – –
*in the sense it’s often used, meaning private persons or organization using violence and/or property-destruction as methods to fight against established governments
**if you can’t see the UK-themed image, it says

Mandela will die soon. Today, tomorrow, this week, next week. It won’t be long. Remember this.
When Cameron latches on the Mandela bandwagon this week remember that in 1985 he was a top member of the Federation of Conservative Students, who produced the “Hang Mandela” posters.
In 1989 Cameron worked in the Tory Policy Unit at Central Office and went on an anti-sanctions fact finding mission to South Africa with pro-apartheid Lobby Firm that was sponsored by P.W Botha.
Remember this when he tells the world he was inspired by Mandela

***in the Cold War, the USA was on the side of the Apartheid regime; the USSR on the other hand sided with the ANC. Such are the vagaries of history.

Republicans switching parties isn’t a good thing

What I run into occasionally in my facebook feed etc. are gleeful stories about some Republican or another switching parties because the GOP has become to extreme for him (so far, it’s always been a “him”, at least as far as I’m aware). And while I’m sure these stories are entertaining, and maybe even vindicate people in their opinion that the GOP has made an extreme shift rightwards, I don’t actually think this is a good development.

To explain this, let me backtrack a bit and first talk a bit about the U.S. political system and its parties a bit. The way voting is set up in the U.S. by its constitution, all of it is stuck at single-member districts in which candidates are elected to represent a region, not ideas*. As the wikipedia article notes, that tends to lead to two-party systems, with maybe an occasional 3rd party cropping up. Historically, in the U.S. 3-party situations tend to be unstable though and either an old party collapses, or the small 3td-party does, and either way you end up very quickly with only 2; and today even that much flexibility doesn’t exist, because the 2 parties are basically very rich and powerful political corporations, and the country is still suffering a 2000 election hangover and consequent allergy to everything 3rd-party. In other words, barring a complete collapse of the current political structure, the U.S. is stuck with the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party.
What this means in the context of Republicans leaving and becoming Democrats is that after all the “moderately” conservative people leave, the Republican party is not going to collapse under the mass of its epistemic black hole (at least not without causing the aforementioned collapse of the political structure), and the Democratic Party is not going to split into one moderately conservative and one progressive party**. Instead, by having people fall off the “left” edge of the Republicans and onto the right edge of the Democrats, the entire system shifts rightward even more, by making both parties just that little bit more conservative. And that’s just the obvious and immediate bad result. Another bad consequence is that when these former Republicans run for (re-)election, they will no longer be competing in primaries against other Republicans, i.e. people more to the right of them; they’ll instead be competing against Democrats, usually people to the left of them. That means whenever one of these guys ends up going into the general election, he does so instead of a more leftish candidate.

So what I’m saying is: unless these dudes have actually changed their minds and genuinely shifted leftwards rather than have the GOP shift rightwards away from them, I don’t want them changing parties; I want them to stay where they are and force the Republican party to be more like them and less like the teafucks. There’s nothing to celebrate when these guys change parties, because all that does is speed up the rightward shift of the US.

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* Although, my entirely non-lawyery reading of the U.S. Constitution failed to find a requirement for congressional districts voting for one representative; AFAICT the relevant parts (Article 1 Section 2; 14th Amendment Section 2) only say that the number of representatives would be determined by population in some way. For the states that currently have one representative this makes no difference, but there’s states with many representatives, and I’m not sure there’s a constitutional reason not to apportion a state’s seats proportionally after a state-wide election, rather than with district-level elections for a single representative.
OTOH, doing it that way would probably cause an even greater imbalance in the relative over-importance given to low-population states.
And while I’m at it, I’m not sure there’s a constitutional requirement for First Past The Goalpost voting, instead of preferential voting systems where you pick your top 3 candidates. Which could also help undo the 2-party-default, but are oddly unpopular at least in the media for some reason.

** Not that all people cheering at Republicans becoming Democrats necessarily think this, it’s just that believing something like that is one of a very few reasons I can think of to cheer this development. Some others I can think of are treating party politics like sports, and Rs leaving to become Ds means your team is winning; and thinking that Rs leaving means they’re becoming more moderate.