Nevo: Carceral feminism cannot save me

Lily Nevo, Assistant Opinion Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault and drugging. 

At Sunday night’s protest after students reported they were drugged at two separate on-campus Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity events, police stood guard to protect the fraternities. They stood against those who reported being attacked to protect those who allowed the alleged druggings to occur. Protesters chanted, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” But it’s not even a question. Cops do not protect survivors. 

Historically, White feminists have used the criminal justice system to champion survivors, assuming their healing rests on the incarceration of their abuser. The belief that victims will only receive justice through harsh sentencing, known as carceral feminism, thrives off of a prosecutorial saviorism: survivors must be saved, and prosecutors — particularly White women — believe they have a duty to do so. Victims are often used as justification against the abolition of police and prisons. Without these institutions, who will stop assaults from happening? Thus, advocacy for survivors and criminal justice reform have long been perceived to be mutually exclusive. 

But over two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported to authorities. Under three percent of people charged with sexual assault receive a felony conviction. Trials require incredible emotional labor on behalf of the survivor. They’re required to recount their trauma repeatedly and publicly, only to have every insignificant detail of their story weaponized against them. Forcing a survivor to be cross-examined on what they were drinking or what they were wearing for the 3% chance that the trial results in a felony conviction only perpetuates the trauma. 

When Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was overturned in June, the dichotomy of sadness for the victims and celebration of a man’s freedom from prison dominated public discourse. But even Cosby was not released because he is innocent; he was released on a technicality. Cosby’s release is not surprising. It shows the system functioning exactly as intended: with loopholes that protect the rich and guilty, while denying due process to the poor and innocent. 

As a survivor, I cannot expect carceral systems to support me. To be clear, this is my personal belief, and I do not speak for other survivors. Sexual assault is incredibly isolating, and trust is no longer something I possess in excess. I sometimes hesitate calling myself a survivor, because the word is full of strength, yet I feel more vulnerable than ever. And prosecutors prey upon this vulnerability for their own career advancement. 

Do not use my pain to perpetrate a violent system. I am not comforted to hear that one more person is incarcerated because of me. Many advocates will rush to say that I am in no way to blame for this, but what they should be focusing on is why I feel guilty. Why does the criminal justice system not center the very needs of the people it claims to protect? This is not to say that the trauma of incarceration outweighs the trauma of assault, but rather that carceral solutions do not help me heal. 

These problems are not limited to the criminal justice system; they are also present in the Title IX processes of many universities. It is no secret that sexual assault is extremely prominent on college campuses, yet it seems to be a problem that no one can handle. I do not doubt that the Title IX office is understaffed, underfunded and bound to many legal constraints, but at what point is bureaucracy more important than the wellbeing of students? Northwestern should not be more comfortable granting my abuser a degree than naming the fraternity houses where some of these incidents are reportedly occurring. 

Though I do not have a perfect solution for accountability on college campuses — nobody does — I am going to finish by stating what I should’ve been asked a long time ago: what I want. I want him to be denied his degree until he receives sufficient counseling. Many abusers were once abused. I want him to be prohibited from holding a leadership position in a student organization. Unbalanced power dynamics fuel sexual violence. I want a counselor to reach out to me when I report trauma. I want financial compensation for the therapy that I have been lucky to afford. I want action that does not require the emotional labor of a Title IX investigation. I want those charged with protecting me to center survivors in their processes. I want every communication about my assault to not include the word “alleged.” I want to be believed. I want to heal. 

This story has been updated to clarify language surrounding this weekend’s crime notices.

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.