The History of Sexual Policing

This post is part of our online roundtable on Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us

Demonstrators at National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black girls and women, May 21, 2015, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

A few years back, I was at a meeting of an organization I was involved in, receiving a training on prison and police abolition. In one of my break-out groups, a middle-aged white woman exclaimed that while she understood that police and prisons were purveyors of racialized state violence, she felt hesitant about abolition based on her work in anti-sexual violence campaigns. What would women experiencing sexual violence do without police to intervene and prisons to protect them?

The power and potency of her carceral feminism, or a feminism that views reliance on tough policing and sentencing as necessary for mitigating gender-based violence, stuck with me. I realized then how central the politics of sexual violence were to the maintenance of the myth that police are a necessary and morally virtuous institution because they keep women safe from sexual harm.

Anne Gray Fischer’s indispensable new book, The Streets Belong to Us, offers a forceful refutation of this pernicious myth. Focused on the history of sexual policing, or the “targeting and legal control of people’s bodies and their presumed sexual activities,” Fischer demonstrates how police routinely used sexual policing of women to sustain and expand their power (2). Fischer details that whenever police faced threats to their legitimacy, they utilized sexual policing to rehabilitate their public reputation, augment their autonomy, and assert their usefulness to urban authorities. Far from protecting women from sexual and state violence, sexual policing unleashed a cascade of harms against women, stripping them of wages, housing, and child custody, imprisoning them in notoriously barbarous carceral institutions, and enforcing racist and sexist hierarchies that entrenched women’s subjugation. Police also routinely exploited their disproportionate and discretionary power to punish by sexually assaulting criminalized women themselves, further compounding women’s vulnerability to sexual harm.

While Fischer is not the first scholar to suggest that police perpetuate rather than dismantle gender-based violence, her text critically situates sexual policing and the state’s criminalization of women as central rather than supplemental to our broader understanding of policing. The point is not merely that police enact violence against women, it’s that gender-based policing actively constructed and repeatedly re-authorizes police power and legitimacy broadly.

Yet if police have historically been such menaces to women, why is carceral feminism such a powerful impulse in contemporary American political culture—especially, if not exclusively, for white women? Fischer’s text offers clarifying answers to this apparent conundrum, suggesting that the roots of carceral feminism stem from a critical and racialized shift in sexual policing after World War II.

As Fischer explains, during World War II, public hysteria over white women’s heightened social mobility and independence led to extensive police action against cisgender, presumed heterosexual white women. During this wartime moment of anxiety about white women’s sexual purity, the targeted sexual policing of white women, and comparatively erratic if still repressive policing of Black women, proved a profitable mechanism through which police could expand their power, restore the patriarchal norm of chaste and submissive white housewives, and deepen the exclusion of Black women from this racialized category of respectable womanhood.

After World War II, however, police “remove[d] white women from their agenda for public order” as the normalization of white women’s workforce participation, sexual liberalization, and liberal morals reforms softened the need for and logic of policing white women (84). The moment that it became more socially acceptable for white women to live public, independent lives without fear of police harassment, law enforcement intensified their criminalization of Black women. As Fischer details in postwar Los Angeles, even as liberal morals enforcement reformers successfully decriminalized nonmarital straight sex, their failure to fundamentally challenge the police’s discretionary authority to enforce “prevailing moral standards” resulted not in a diminishing of morals enforcement for all women, but rather in the racially unequal application of sexual policing (84). Framing mass arrests of Black women as evidence of police effectiveness and “professionalism,” a foundationally white supremacist and patriarchal LAPD used the targeted criminalization of Black women to enshrine their autonomy and evade accountability during an era of liberal legal reform, thereby bolstering their power. LAPD’s racialized shift from policing white women to aggressively targeting Black women was severe and noticeable, leading to outrage and protest among Black residents in the city. Indeed, Fischer suggests that the LAPD’s visible decriminalization of white women and intensive sexual policing of Black women played a substantial role in building the frustration among Black residents that eventually led to the Watts uprising. In so doing, Fischer offers a generative re-reading of the insurgency that demonstrates how much historians lose when we trivialize gender and sexuality in our analyses of racialized state violence.

More than simply a police-driven plot to reestablish authority, municipal elites also welcomed the intensification of sexual policing against Black women, which Fischer shows served as a mechanism for hardening racial segregation and priming downtown areas for redevelopment. Offering a novel historical analysis of how anti-Black and gendered police violence fuels gentrification, Fischer details how in the 1970s urban authorities wishing to lure white capital and consumers back to the city relied upon the sexual policing and clearance of Black women from downtown. On the one hand, a heightened awareness of the visibly racist and sexist violence of morals enforcement catalyzed calls to decriminalize sex work and reduce law enforcement’s discretionary power to police public morality. In Boston, Fischer details how an effort to transform the city’s maligned and heavily policed sexual entertainment district, called the Combat Zone, into a “respectable” and economically revitalizing Adult Entertainment District initially offered hope to decriminalization activists who thought that the project could lead to the liberalization of morals laws. In practice, however, the AED did not significantly hamper police authority and city planners’ desire for the new district to be “safe” for white capital and patrons actually bolstered the police’s authority to crack down on “crime” in the area. In practice, this meant the intensification of BPD’s sexual policing and spatial banishment of Black women, who, as Fischer shows, by this point already faced disproportionate police criminalization and abuse while in the Combat Zone. Presumed criminal and disadvantageous to the city’s urban renewal, BPD’s morals arrests of Black women “smooth[ed] the path for incoming capital” by clearing prime downtown land and depressing its values, thereby enabling real estate developers to swoop in, purchase cheap land, and build luxury attractions aimed at appealing to the white wealth and bodies (135). As white women found city streets more hospitable to their sexual expression and independent lifestyles, in other words, Black women faced an increasingly dangerous and repressive urban terrain justified by the seemingly race-neutral but deeply anti-Black imperatives of post-industrial urban economic revival.

It’s no wonder, then, as Fischer details in her final chapter, that predominantly white dominance feminists, or a group of feminists focused on fighting individual male violence against an undifferentiated, universalized category of women, in the 1980s saw little problem in partnering with law enforcement in the work of ending sexual violence. As Fischer’s analysis makes clear, in the postwar period, urban white women were and are still afforded protection from police, or at the very least are spared the targeted police harassment and terror that Black women and especially Black women sex workers routinely endure. White carceral feminists’ willingness to view police as friend rather than foe, in other words, has deep historical roots in law enforcement’s active decriminalization of white women’s public sexual lives.

This is not to excuse dominance feminists for their political myopia— as  Fischer makes clear, there were ample Black feminist and sex worker-led organizations that challenged dominance feminists’ uncritical embrace of law enforcement partnerships. Yet Fischer’s specific historicization of white carceral feminism as itself the product of shifting police action is fruitful: it clarifies that contemporary white women’s belief in the necessity of police is not necessarily a matter of pure ideology or false consciousness, but rather the product of an historical development. Removing white women as primary targets of police harassment induced them to experience police power as partners in their fight against sexual exploitation. Just as importantly— and troublingly— Fischer’s work suggests that law enforcement’s twinned decriminalization of white women and hyper-criminalization of Black women further tethered white women’s material advancement to the expansion of police power. White women’s ability to independently accumulate capital, and thus gain freedom from male-dominated power structures, depended not only on the legalization of their public sexual lives, but also on the expanded sexual policing of Black women. As Fischer effectively demonstrates,  this ultimately facilitated the urban gentrification projects that substantively catered to and materially benefitted independent, upwardly mobile, professional white women. In short, Fischer’s analysis makes legible a racialized and carceral underbelly fortifying white heterosexual women’s postwar assimilation into racial capitalism—demonstrating how police power and the racially segregated urban economy it produced undergirded so much of white women’s ability to successfully break free from patriarchal social arrangements.1 It raises even greater urgency for white women to confront how our safety and livelihoods are entangled with the expansion of an anti-Black carceral regime, and to work vigorously to chart a different vision of feminist liberation that prevents such entanglements from continuing any further.

  1. Here Fischer is self-consciously building upon the insights of Black feminist and carceral state scholars, such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, Saidiya Hartman, Kali Gross, Sarah Haley, Beth Ritchie, Talitha LeFlouria, Andrea Ritchie, and many others, who have long detailed how white women’s advancement and power – however still partial or incomplete under heteropatriarchy – has been forged through the political denigration and state repression of Black women.
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Charlotte Rosen

Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student at Northwestern University who specializes in post-1960s United States political history and the history of the United States carceral state. Her dissertation, entitled “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” examines the history of prisons, punishment, and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania, with a focus on the politics of prison overcrowding and Black protest to the emergent carceral regime in the 1980s and 1990s. She is particularly interested in critical prison studies, historical studies of the American state and federalism, political economy, and social movements. Charlotte also tutors weekly at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men's prison in Illinois, with the Northwestern Prison Education Program, where she is also on the Graduate Student Advisory Council