‘Carceral feminism’ and its critics

***Trigger warning, this blog post contains emotive and distressing descriptions and content. This is very much the start of a conversation and a series of articles I am drafting in response to critiques of ‘carceral feminism’. It is by no means an absolute answer. I will engage respectfully with those who wish to genuinely reach out in a trauma-informed way***.

[edited on 15th March 2021 to include a link and edit font colour]

I wrote about being a ‘criminologist or criminal’ here which provides a background to some of the thoughts here.

I also published in Methodological Innovations here.

Telling stories is a powerful act. It reveals who we are to the world and allows other survivors to connect with our words. Autobiography is a risky business (Ahearne, 2021; Dragmoir, 2020; Javaid, 2019; Pearce, 2020) but it is a vulnerable place for a researcher to reside. Malestream criminology rejects our emotions and the value on women’s voices and the messiness of emotions and knowledge.

It also completely disregards women’s anger. That if, as the feminist writer Mona Eltahawy asks, how many men must we kill before men stop raping and murdering us?

Mona rightly asserts that ““Prisons around the world are full of women who fight back and the streets are full of the men who assaulted them.”

My own doctoral research was in a women’s prison working with sex workers. Women’s anger burns. Women are violent. Society and scholarship has a discomfort with the capability of women to cause serious harm. For us to beat and kill our abusers.

As I suggest elsewhere on the blog, it is the space of messy meaning-making that is valuable. It is to not have all the answers. Only the arrogant assume they know the definitive answer to any of this.

As a survivor of much male violence including sexual, growing up with DV, and the experience of an organized crime group (OCG) I write about experiencing criminology as a form of secondary trauma (Ahearne, 2021). A place in which I have been repeatedly labelled as a ‘carceral feminist’ for believing that some violent men belong in prison. Whilst I advocate for radically different prison estate with a drastically reduced population, my experiences particularly within organized crime have taught me that a lot is missing within current prison abolitionist debates. The work of Terweil addresses much of the gaps in current thought, and offers the possibility of conceptualizing a ‘spectrum of decarceration’ (Terweil, 2020).

If scholars and campaigners want to genuinely problematize what ‘justice’ is, and what alternatives to the carceral state there are, they better be ready for the uncomfortable answers that don’t sit with a romanticized idea of a ‘community’. A community that apparently does not replicate racism, misogyny, classism, ableism or any violence. The rape apologism and misogyny of many on the left, including prominent workers’ movements cannot be ignored. The idea of a consensus is particularly troubling and simplistic. I add (15.03.21) this article by Dr Julia Downes of the problem with sexual violence in left-wing movements.

“But the clarity of the choice between carceral and noncarceral feminism obscures ongoing debate among both scholars and activists about the definition of carceral feminism, the nature of sexual harm, and the meaning of prison abolition. In so doing, I will suggest, it overlooks opportunities to advance the feminist abolitionist project” (Terweil, 2020, p. 426).

Terweil continues that:

“A binary understanding of carceral feminism that pits feminists who are willing to engage with the state or the law against feminists who see transformative justice as the only route to justice obscures that feminists within each camp (and not just the people they wish to hold accountable) may disagree about what sexual (in)justice looks like. This is especially salient when transformative justice practitioners recommend that everyone be “on the same page with their political analysis of sexual violence” Terweil, 2020, p. 429).

Here lies one of the many problems with such an approach: there is no accounting for conflict and disagreement.

And it is here I can continue. I have read nothing that explains how public protection and individual safety can be guaranteed by community alternatives that are completely disenfranchised from the state/ governance/ carceral system/ criminal law.

Whilst I agree that criminal law alone can never solve the issue of gender-based violence/rape/CSE/OCG attacks on women and children as ‘collateral damage’, I do argue that it is has to be an option. If a member of an OCG breaks into my house tonight with a machete to my throat, I fail to see how an immediate intervention and long-lasting and ongoing sanction can be provided by a ‘community’ alternative.

I write from the place from which I am. I do not write as a neat criminologist with my semi-structured interviews. You know this by now. My knowing comes from chaotic traumatic lived experience. I then go on to theorize and try and make sense that does not focus on my individual trauma. The problem is that for the majority of people within Criminology it is the other way around. They theorize and then try to shoehorn people in.

I write as a woman with CPTSD who has my space limited whilst defendants have their space maximized. I write as a woman with restraining orders against perpetrators. Without the backdrop of the threat of prison for violating these orders: I would be harmed. That is the reality.

I write as a wife of a man who has been in prison and who has had a suspended sentence. I speak as a woman who has many male friends who have been in prison. Their narrative is very very different from the academic prison abolitionist movement.

I reject white middle class scholars co-opting movements that not only stop Black feminists having those platforms and book deals, but also weaponizes other women’s trauma to blame them for ‘expanding a racist carceral project’. Victim-survivors owe their rapists NOTHING. The damage that such guilt causes is disgusting. Being a victim-survivor is an exhausting and time-consuming project. Many victim-survivors cannot work ever again, cannot leave their homes, cannot have relationships. The fixation with the ‘pains of imprisonment’ is not only a complete flattening of the debate, but does nothing to soothe the rightful and legitimate anger of women.

McGlynn and Westmarland (2018) identified that recognition is a key component to victim-survivors’ understanding of justice and includes acknowledgement of the significance of the harm, they coin the term ‘kaleidoscopic justice’ which captures: “a constantly shifting pattern; justice constantly refracted through new experiences or understandings; justice as an ever-evolving, nuanced and lived experience” (p. 1). Just as McGynn and Westmarland argue for an understanding of that is a ‘kaleidoscope of justice’ that varies from each victim-survivor, Antonsdottir argues that we must see victim-survivors experiences as being on a continuum of justice (Antondottir, 2019).

Antonsdottir argues that victim-survivors fight to (re)claim space (2019) and this is something I can relate to. Within Criminology and the often (very) aggressive push to abolitionism I have my experiences and trauma minimized and my spaces dissolved (Ahearne, 2021). My abusers going to prison was important both in symbolic terms, but also physically in terms of accessing space. It meant I could access local amenities, walk my dogs, and even use my garden, without fear of being seriously harmed by members of an OCG. Calls of restorative and transformative justice would do nothing to address the serious safeguarding risks to victims who have had threat to life warnings issued by the police (Ahearne, 2021). Antonsdottir rightly acknowledges that “… offenders are found guilty and sentenced to prison can both provide victim-survivors with the recognition of the state and, at least temporarily, with societal space, albeit on the law’s own terms” (Antonsdottir, 2019). This is not acknowledged in the abolitionist arguments which claim that women supporting imprisonment for violent men is expanding the carceral state. Here, imprisonment for rapists can be seen as a radical reclaiming of public and private space by women.

Failures of Alternatives to Prison

McEvoy and McConnachie argue that one strong criticism of restorative justice is precisely that, in the drive to reintegrate offenders, victims may feel ‘compelled toward compassion’ (Acorn, 2005), a position which may not be in their interest or even what they want (McEvoy and McConnnchie, 2012, p.492). This is crucial!! Women are pressured to placate, to people-please, to be shamed for the discomfort that they ‘cause’ by revealing their pain.

Terwiel argues that “Such contestation is already evident in the INCITE! statement, which argues that previous alternatives to incarceration developed by antiprison activists have “generally failed to provide sufficient mechanisms for safety and accountability” for survivors and have often relied on ‘a romanticized notion of communities’” (INCITE!, 2001 cited in Terwiel, 2019, p.427).

Put simply, women often feel pressured to spare men punishment. We are socialised into accepting pain, abuse, shame and being responsible for maintaining the image and safety of men. We owe violent men nothing. If men do not wish to experience the pains of imprisonment or the expansion of the carceral state: they can stop raping and killing us. Whilst it is of course important that we continue to interrogate the socio-structural inequalities and the institutionalized racism and classism of the criminal justice system, we cannot blame them for the prevalence of rape. In doing so we inadvertently reinforce the biological essentialism that men cannot ‘help themselves’ and that our bodies are not the sites of abuse but are the incitement of such.

When we take the radical viewpoint that women owe violent men nothing, we can start to imagine ways that different victim-survivors may envision their justice without pressure or shame. More writing on alternatives to imprisonment for rapists and other violent men need to give space for women’s rage. Academic writing can be callous in its sanitizing, there are few spaces for women to scream and let their anger bleed into the text, “The lack of the means to distribute is another form of censorship” (Gordimer, 1993 cited in Rich, 1993).

If men spent as much time and effort trying to address the causes of male violence as women scholars do trying to save men from the pains of imprisonment, we would radically change the world.

In solidarity as always with all those with messy stories, chaos, and all victim-survivors of sexual violence.

Gemma x


Ahearne, G. (2021) ‘Criminologist or Criminal?’ Autobiography and Trauma as Liminal spaces, Methodological Innovations https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20597991211012054

Ahearne, G. (Forthcoming, 2022) Chapter for Handbook on Women’s Experiences of Criminal Justice System, Oxon: Routledge, Pink Punishment The Curious Case of Women’s Centres article

Ahrens, C. E. (2006). Being silenced: The impact of negative social reactions on the disclosure of rape. American Journal of Community Psychology, 38, 263–274

Antonsdottir, H. F. (2020) ‘Injustice Disrupted: Experiences of Just spaces by Victim-Survivors of Sexual Violence’, Social & Legal Studies, 29(5), pp. 718-744, doi: 10.1177/0964663919896065

Downes, J. (2017).”It’s not the abuse that kills you, it’s the silence”. The Silencing of Sexual Violence Activism in Social Justice Movements in the UK Left’, EG Press, Vil1, No. 2, Justice Power and Resistance, DOI: https://egpress.org/Julia-Downes-Its-not-the-abuse-that-kills-you

Dragomir, C-I, (2020) ‘Destabilizing the privilege of the knower to establish forms of solidarity: Reflections on conducting fieldwork with vulnerable communities in India and Romania’, Methodological Innovations, September 2020 DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2059799120968728

Harding, N. (2020) Co-constructing feminist research: Ensuring meaningful participation while researching the experiences of criminalised women, Methodological Innnovations, June 2020, DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2059799120925262

Javaid, A. (2019). Hear my screams: An auto-ethnographic account of the police. Methodological Innovations, October 2019, DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2059799119884279

Keene, S. (2021) ‘Becoming a sexademic: Reflections on a ‘dirty’ research project, Sexualities, doi: 10.1177/1363460720986915

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance, Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex (2001), https://incite-national.org/incite-critical-resistance-statement/

Lundgren, E (1998) The hand that strikes and comforts. Gender construction and the tension between body and symbol. In: Dobash, RE, Dobash, RP (eds) Rethinking Violence Against Women. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

McGlynn, C. Westmarland, N. (2019) ‘Kaleidoscopic Justice: Sexual Violence and Victim-Survivors’ Perceptions of Justice’, Social & Legal Studies, 28 (2), pp. 179-201. Doi: 10.1177/0964663918761200

McGlynn, C, Downes, J, Westmarland, N (2017) Seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence: Recognition, voice and consequences. In: Zinsstag, E, Keenan, M (eds) Restorative Responses to Sexual Violence: Legal, Social and Therapeutic Dimensions. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 179–191.

Pearce, R. (2020) ‘A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy’, Sociology, March 2020, doi/10.1177/0038038520904918

Tapia, S. T. (2020) ‘Beyond Carceral Expansion: Survivors’ Experiences of using specialised Courts for Violence Against Women in Ecuador’, Social & legal Studies, doi: 10.1177/0964663920973747

Terweil, A. (2020) ‘What is carceral feminism?’, Political theory, 48(4), pp. 421-442. Doi: 10.1177/0090591719889946