In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $13.95
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 39%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (5) from $13.95   
  • New (2) from $17.96   
  • Used (3) from $13.95   


In an Abusive State puts forth a powerful argument: that the feminist campaign to stop sexual violence has entered into a problematic alliance with the neoliberal state. Kristin Bumiller chronicles the evolution of this alliance by examining the history of the anti-violence campaign, the production of cultural images about sexual violence, professional discourses on intimate violence, and the everyday lives of battered women. She also scrutinizes the rhetoric of high-profile rape trials and the expansion of feminist concerns about sexual violence into the international human-rights arena. In the process, Bumiller reveals how the feminist fight against sexual violence has been shaped over recent decades by dramatic shifts in welfare policies, incarceration rates, and the surveillance role of social-service bureaucracies.

Drawing on archival research, individual case studies, testimonies of rape victims, and interviews with battered women, Bumiller raises fundamental concerns about the construction of sexual violence as a social problem. She describes how placing the issue of sexual violence on the public agenda has polarized gender- and race-based interests. She contends that as the social welfare state has intensified regulation and control, the availability of services for battered women and rape victims has become increasingly linked to their status as victims and their ability to recognize their problems in medical and psychological terms. Bumiller suggests that to counteract these tendencies, sexual violence should primarily be addressed in the context of communities and in terms of its links to social disadvantage. In an Abusive State is an impassioned call for feminists to reflect on how the co-optation of their movement by the neoliberal state creates the potential to inadvertently harm impoverished women and support punitive and racially based crime control efforts.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

In an Abusive State provides a needed and instructive retrospective of the violence against women movement. Kristin Bumiller brings into focus the uneasy alliance between feminists and the state by looking critically at the official conduct of rape trials and domestic assault cases, as well as the routine surveillance of women considered ‘dependent.’ Using extensive empirical analysis, she exposes the limitations of strategies that attempt to incorporate feminist practices within mainstream institutions. This important and timely book will set the agenda for a new era of feminist activism—one that begins with the realization that mounting fundamental challenges to systems of social control means working outside of the existing institutional structures of the state.”—Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emory University

“Built on demanding scholarship, informed by collective feminist praxis, In an Abusive State engages the lives of women experiencing the personal trauma of and institutional responses to sexual violence. Committed, reflective, accessible, and challenging, Kristin Bumiller critically maps the structural relations of inequality and marginalization underpinning women’s relationships to the authoritarian state and its regulatory institutions. Internationally significant, her excellent analysis exposes the policy deficits of restraint and criminalization and of attempting to affirm rights without addressing women’s social, political, and economic exclusion.”—Phil Scraton, Queen’s University, Belfast, author of Power, Conflict, and Criminalisation

“Kristin Bumiller describes a sane, intelligent path through the cyclical race and gender passion plays that have spun out—and spun out of control—on the national media stage. From the Central Park Jogger case to O. J. Simpson, Bumiller is never polemical. This book provides much-needed perspective as she details the conscious and unconscious ingredients in how such polarization is choreographed, and how boundaries are subtly but intransigently marked.”—Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law, Columbia University, and columnist for The Nation

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342397
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 742,541
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Kristin Bumiller is Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College. She is the author of Civil Rights Society: The Social Construction of Victims.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

In an Abusive State


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4220-5

Chapter One

THE SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGENDA feminists and the state

Neoliberalism ... is hostile to concessions to the popular classes (social and economic rights) and to the state as a promoter of non-mercantile interactions among citizens ... [D]emocratic struggles for inclusion in the social contract ... have been suppressed, illegalized, criminalized, while organizations that conducted them have been under attack and often dismantled. A new virulent counter-reformism emerged, determined to erode or eliminate social and economic rights, expanding the market economy in such a way as to transform the whole society into a market society. Since whatever is being proposed as a reform (of education, health, social security, etc.) is definitely for the worse, the left is often forced to defend the status quo. -Boaventura de Sousa Santos

For almost forty years a concerted campaign by feminists has transformed popular consciousness and led to the widespread growth of organizations designed to address the problem of sexual violence. This campaign is often seen as the core component of the contemporary feminist movement and fundamental to the feminist agenda of promoting autonomy, equality, and social justice. The movement's primary objective has been the recognition of the harm of sexual violence and the consistent sanctioning of perpetrators. Undeniably, this work has been extremely important; it has called attention to the effects of sexual violence on women's lives and demanded a large-scale public commitment to stopping this violence. However, feminists have not been in total command of the "sexual violence agenda"; much of it has transpired through an explicit or implicit reliance on the coercive power of government to ensure women's safety.

This feminist alliance with the state is to a large extent unavoidable. Concerning violent crimes against women, it is difficult to imagine policies that would not ultimately rely upon the carceral capacities of the state. Clearly, there are some instances of grave harm that require the segregation of offenders for the protection of society. Yet in the United States and other national contexts, it is important to be aware of both the potentialities and limitations of using state power to advance the interests of women. The growth of neoliberal politics has provided even more reason for skepticism as feminists find their innovations incorporated into the regulatory and criminal justice apparatus. In this regard, it is essential to consider how the feminist campaign against sexual violence evolved in alliance with the state, and even more critically how this campaign enabled countervailing state interests.

foundational feminism

In the late 1960s "radical" feminists focused the movement's attention on rape as a political problem. Radical activists initiated a series of small grassroots campaigns throughout the United States that called attention to the realities of violence in women's lives and particularly to how rape was used as a tool to subordinate women to men. For these feminists the focus on rape was connected to new self-help approaches to support women's health and safety. At the same time, the issue of sexual violence reached mainstream feminist organizations and was seen as a core concern linked to equal rights and women's full participation in the public sphere. By 1971, the National Organization for Women (NOW) organized task forces to transform existing rape statutes and to promote model rape laws.

By focusing on law reform, mainstream organizers promoted objectives consistent with the broad agenda of the women's movement. They called on the state to fulfill its obligations to protect all its citizens equally and identified the lack of enforcement of sexual crimes against women as a major obstacle to women's freedom within the public sphere. Most activist groups named the problem as the failure of the state to recognize and protect women; in fact, the often flagrant denial of violence against women was characterized as state-sanctioned violence and was seen as complicit with other forms of patriarchal control that oppressed women. Giving rapists a mere "slap on the wrist" and considering women's battering a "domestic disturbance" reinforced cultural presumptions that did not take violence against women seriously. These reformist objectives have been and remain an important element in the campaign against sexual violence. From this perspective, an alliance with the state is essentially a nonissue, except in terms of compelling the state to follow through on its promises for more aggressive enforcement of the law.

The battered women's movement began from similar ideological roots in terms of its theory of patriarchy, power, and violence. The goal of the movement was to bring into the public realm an everyday event that had been hidden by the ideology of privacy surrounding the patriarchal family. The term "battered woman" had no public significance before the feminist movement politicized the issue by defining it as a form of violence produced by a system of male domination. An essential part of the movement against wife battering was the creation of shelters; these were not institutions but houses formed through collective action to provide a safe haven from male violence. The shelters were centers of consciousness raising and were staffed by feminist volunteers, some of whom were previously battered women. Part of the core beliefs of the grassroots movement was that the shelter was both a physical and symbolic boundary between women's space and the violence of the male world. Within these homes women could exercise their own strength and autonomy outside relationships of domination. Shelters were built to be homes, albeit temporary, in which women would feel free to come and go as they pleased. It was hoped that battered women's lives would "intersect" with these houses, and that their continued connection with this protected space would vary over time according to their needs and contributions. The core philosophy of the shelter movement was anti-state.

This early history was influential; most shelters and rape crisis centers formed as distinctive "feminist organizations" that explicitly recognized the need for less hierarchy, democratic decision making, and women working with women. This meant that women came to understand the violence they experienced as a collectivity and that there were no rigid boundaries between organizers and women who sought help. Shelters and crisis centers provided a place for women to become whole again after the experience of violence, an experience they learned to see not simply as a series of injurious acts but as a shattering condition that affects many women's lives. Beyond a spiritual component, which stressed the interconnectedness of women's problems, was a practical mission of providing the basic resources needed by the women and their children. The volunteer staff utilized the government service network (although not exclusively) in assisting women in their search for housing, jobs, and childcare.

As these organizations matured, they encountered numerous challenges in carrying out their purpose and meeting women's needs. The imposition of regulations and the desire for stable funding sources pushed these organizations onto the "terrain of the state." Studies of these organizations show that although state power was actively contested, shelters and rape crisis centers had to make compromises and structural changes to remain in compliance and to take advantage of available resources. Over time, this led to rape crisis centers and shelters functioning bureaucratically and relying on professionals in order to secure reliable funding. Institutionalization also brought internal conflict and contestation over fundamental questions of theory versus practice. Organizational turmoil was not driven by state involvement alone; over time shelter and crisis center workers gained a greater appreciation for the necessary scope of individual and system-wide transformation and struggled to gain more realistic assessments of the political, economic, and personal challenges facing women.

The consequences of moving onto the terrain of the state are still widely debated: some see these transformations as a betrayal of grassroots sensibilities, while most see these changes as an inevitable outcome of growth and stability. Overall, the majority of these organizations have been successful at maintaining their feminist identity. The foundational goal of empowering women was not lost; rather, new strategies were developed as the conditions for this empowerment changed. Yet the internal evolution of these organizations reveals only part of the story. While battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers maintained their quasi-autonomy from the state, other organizations whose primary purposes were not treating rape and domestic battery and which did not ascribe to feminist ideology were increasingly being called upon by the state to address the problem. The growing recognition of sexual violence as a public health crisis brought legitimacy to the work of feminist organizations, but it also resulted in the broad-scale expansion of the instrumental capacities of the state to address sexual violence. The state's terrain reached far beyond feminist organizations and their agendas.

growth of neoliberalism

By the late 1970s, the tenets of neoliberalism began to influence American public policy at home and abroad. Ronald Reagan's first term as president marks the shift to neoliberal principles of governance which are associated with less restraint on free-market policies, pro-corporatism, privatization, and in particular, the transfer of public services to private organizations. This shift significantly affected the already established feminist anti-violence movement in its attempts to reform the criminal justice programs and build up victim services. The call for state responsibility for preventing and treating victims was in direct contrast to the new ethics of personal responsibility that was the cornerstone of the neoliberal agenda. This contradiction was resolved, but the cost was the incorporation of the feminist anti-violence movement into the apparatus of the regulatory state.

For example, the rationale for providing services for women was transformed by the neoliberal agenda. The organizers of the shelter movement saw the necessity of encouraging women to take advantage of available government benefits, but only as a temporary means to provide for their children. Importantly, seeking government help was part of a growing recognition both within shelter organizations and in the feminist movement more generally of the fundamental insecurity of marriage as an institution. Now, in many battered women's shelters women are required to apply for all appropriate state benefits as part of a process of showing that they are taking all necessary steps to gain self-sufficiency. These requirements entangle women in an increasingly value-laden welfare program tied to the promotion of the traditional nuclear family, fear of dependency, and distrust of women as mothers. These ties, moreover, come with fewer benefits as the "devolution" of welfare systems has brought about cutbacks in services and rescaling to the local level. At the same time, the welfare system has become more linked to other forms of state involvement, including probate court actions concerning custody, paternity hearings, child protective services, and relationships with school officials. As a result, when women seek help from shelters, it now produces an inevitable dependency on the state.

Another outgrowth of neoliberalism has been the expansion of the regulatory functions of the state. This expanded role of the state as a manager of personal lives has been described as the growth of governmentality. This concept is drawn from the political theorist Michel Foucault, whose analysis of power in modern societies demonstrates how coercive forms of authority are manifested through quasi-governmental instruments and other "softer" forms of power. This growing presence of the state is seen within feminist organizations, as discussed above, but it also emerges as more state and quasi-state actors become part of a network of responders to sexual violence. With the growth of the regulatory apparatus, crisis centers and shelters are now a small segment of a service sector for which intimate violence is one of a long list of social problems to which they respond. Some of these organizations are central to the policing function of the state, such as sex crime units in police and prosecutors' offices. Others are more ancillary to the state and even private in form. These include hospital emergency rooms, medical doctors in a range of specialties, mental health professionals, community service and religious organizations. As the responsibility for recognizing and treating intimate violence has expanded, so has the use of protocols for defining who is eligible for services, client expectations, and treatment methodologies. These systems often function in conjunction with the welfare regulatory apparatus and are obligated to follow protocols and reporting procedures, even though many are private or quasi-state efforts to manage the large numbers of women who experience relationship violence.

While these changes were occurring in the social service sector, there was a dramatic rise in incarceration rates in the United States beginning in the late 1970s. Some see this swell in incarceration as a direct consequence of neoliberalism-a less regulated economy resulted in increased social stratification and a generalized sense of insecurity that then led to more regulation of the poor and minorities. The criminologist David Garland posits that this dramatic upturn is a multifaceted response to both a changing political climate and an evolving logic of penal reform. This brought about a "culture of control," which was grounded in conceptions of the essential "otherness" of the criminal and highly dependent on mechanisms of social segregation. In this way, crime control emerged as a new form of social exclusion reinforcing other forms of discrimination against minorities and directed against potentially unruly classes of persons.

Mainstream feminist demands for more certain and severe punishment for crimes against women fed into these reactionary forces. This resulted in a direct alliance between feminist activists and legislators, prosecutors, and other elected officials promoting the crime control business. Although the feminist's "gender war" did not have the same impact on incarceration rates as the "war on drugs," it still contributed to the symbolic message. Sex crimes generated diffuse fears that justified more punitive action by the state. Like other issues on the crime control agenda, the link to an actual rise in the crime rate was less significant than how violence against women shaped a generalized fear of disorder and the image of habitual and recalcitrant criminals. The prominence of sexual violence on the crime control agenda led to the creation of specialized sex crime units in large urban police and prosecutors' offices. These units were responsible for many of the most celebrated cases in the latter part of the century.

As the rest of this chapter will show, the impact of neoliberalism was most powerfully seen as the feminist campaign was modified and integrated into state and quasi-state organizations and became part of the routine business of social service bureaucracies and crime control. Once incorporated into this agenda, the campaign against sexual violence had far-reaching effects for the exercise of symbolic, coercive, and administrative power over both men as perpetrators and women as victims. The new awareness about "sex as violence" resulted in a panic over sex crimes that contributed to wrongly directed fears about the omnipresence of predators and to opportunistic prosecutions. At the same time, an ostensibly feminist knowledge about sexual violence informed professional practices and spearheaded the surveillance and management of victims. Through these developments, the progressive ideals of this campaign deferred to the more pressing prerogatives of security, public health, preservation of the family, and other demands to maintain order.


Excerpted from In an Abusive State by KRISTIN BUMILLER Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

1. The Sexual Violence Agenda: Feminists and the State 1

2. Gender War: The Cultural Representation of Sexual Violence 16

3. Expressive Justice: The Symbolic Function of the Gang Rape Trial 36

4. Administrative Injustice: The Growth of the Therapeutic State 63

5. Victim Insurgency: The State as a Dangerous Stranger 96

6. Universalizing Gender Justice: At Home and Abroad 132

Conclusion 155

Notes 167

Bibliography 189

Index 209

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)