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University of California Press
Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility / Edition 1

Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility / Edition 1

by Susan Starr Sered, Maureen Norton-HawkSusan Starr Sered


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Based on five years of fieldwork in Boston, Can’t Catch a Break documents the day-to-day lives of forty women as they struggle to survive sexual abuse, violent communities, ineffective social and therapeutic programs, discriminatory local and federal policies, criminalization, incarceration, and a broad cultural consensus that views suffering as a consequence of personal flaws and bad choices. Combining hard-hitting policy analysis with an intimate account of how marginalized women navigate an unforgiving world, Susan Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk shine new light on the deep and complex connections between suffering and social inequality.

As an additional teaching tool, instructors can find updates about the women in Can't Catch a Break on Susan's blog at

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282797
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/12/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Susan Starr Sered is Professor of Sociology and Senior Researcher at the Center for Women's Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University in Boston. She is the author of Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity. Read more about the women in Can't Catch a Break and Susan's research on her blog at

Maureen Norton-Hawk is Professor of Sociology and Codirector of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy Research at Suffolk University in Boston. She has published widely in the field of women and prostitution.

Read an Excerpt

Can't Catch a Break

Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

By Susan Starr Sered, Maureen Norton-Hawk


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95870-8


"Joey Spit on Me"

How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick

We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it's almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern.

—Rebecca Solnit, "The Longest War Is the One against Women" (2013)

Men—they don't want to leave me ... they want to control me.


Francesca's father came to the United States to live the American dream. An Italian sailor, he jumped ship and swam to shore in Massachusetts, where he married a woman from a well-established Italian American family. Francesca describes her father as "a typical macho Italian man." From the outside, they were a stable and successful blue-collar family. Her parents owned their home; Dad worked at the same job his entire adult life, and Mom stayed home with the children. Francesca's early memories are of festivals at the local church, her mother's traditional recipes for Easter lamb and Italian meatballs, and her father's stories from the Italian American social club. But below the surface her family was sliding into a spiral of illness and affliction. From as early as Francesca can remember, her mother was sick: throat cancer, eye disease, and congestive heart failure, trips to the psychiatric hospital and suicide attempts. It was up to Francesca, as the only daughter still living at home, to clean up the blood and bandage her mother's slit wrists.

By the time Francesca was thirteen, things were going very wrong. Her "scumbag" older brother began molesting her. Her parents learned of the sexual abuse from the pediatrician who discovered anal warts (a symptom of human papillomavirus [HPV] infection). In response to the abuse, Francesca was put on psychiatric medication; her brother was not held to account for his behavior. Thirty years later Francesca still shakes when recalling how her parents instructed her to tell Child Welfare Services that it was her late grandfather—not her brother—who had molested her. Before her fourteenth birthday she ran away from home to escape the abuse. By the age of fifteen she had met an older man, and as soon as she turned eighteen, she married him. Together they had two sons; a third pregnancy was aborted at her husband's insistence. Francesca recalls the years when the boys were young as the happiest in her life. She loved, and still loves, being a mother.

For ten years or so Francesca supported the family, working as a waitress while her husband used the family funds to support his drug habit. A violent man, he beat her up badly and often, kicking out her teeth, breaking her ribs, and stabbing her in the stomach, causing her to undergo a hysterectomy. Just as bad, according to Francesca, he "destroyed my self-esteem," repeatedly telling her that she was fat and that no other man would ever want her. Despite it all, Francesca managed to work at a series of low-paying, physically strenuous jobs through her late twenties. When her father became terminally ill with cancer, she quit her job to nurse him. At his death, he left the family home to her to live in, and pay the mortgage on. Several years later, "out of the blue someone from the bank showed up," and she and her children were told that they had to move out immediately. It turned out that her husband had fed his drug habit with the money she had given him to pay the mortgage.

By the time Francesca's marriage ended, she was living with multiple, painful chronic conditions, some the direct legacy of her husband's violence: osteoarthritis (a consequence of his beatings), degenerative disk disease with chronic pain and swelling in her back, a broken nose that interfered with her sleep, broken teeth, and panic attacks. She also was diagnosed with hepatitis C and rheumatoid arthritis. Although the hepatitis C is destroying her liver, Francesca is more worried about the visible conditions, especially the rotten teeth and the scarred skin that make it difficult for her to find a job or, in her words, a "good man." Doctors prescribed Percocet for the chronic pain that she developed from the beatings, as well as a pharmacopeia of psychotropic drugs for "my anxiety and bi-polar." It did not take long for her use of Percocet and anti-anxiety medication to escalate into addiction. When the doctors wouldn't write any more prescriptions, she turned to the streets for her Percocet.

In 2001 Francesca served her first prison sentence for larceny. While she certainly was willing to shoplift or sell an occasional prescription pill in order to scrape by, this charge was tied to her husband having passed bad checks in her name. During the year in jail, her brother (the same one who had molested Francesca) requested and received custody of her children. The state paid him $1,000 a month for each child, and to this day Francesca believes that he wanted the children only for the money. Upon leaving prison, she found that she had lost her Section VIII (federally subsidized) housing eligibility. For the next ten years Francesca cycled in and out of jail, shelters, temporary housing, lousy relationships, and jobs like the strip club gig that ended in misery.


When Francesca first told us about her life, we couldn't understand why she left an abusive father and brother only to marry an abusive husband. Nearly all of the women in the project have suffered multiple sexual assaults. With very few exceptions they spent their childhood years in households where male violence against girls and women was commonplace. Nearly all witnessed fathers, stepfathers, or mother's boyfriends physically hurt and psychologically humiliate and control their mothers. Almost all have been raped as adults or been involved in relationships with battering men, or both.

In their encounters with gendered violence the Boston women are not unique. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (Black et al. 2011), in the United States, on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner; more than 1 million women are raped yearly. Nearly 1 in 5 women has been raped at some time in her life; 1 in 4 women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime; 1 in 6 women has experienced stalking victimization during her lifetime; and almost 70 percent of female victims experienced some form of intimate partner violence for the first time before the age of twenty-five (Black et al. 2011). Across the United States an estimated 30 percent of women have been targets of sexual or physical abuse, and nearly 1 in 5 girls ages fourteen to seventeen has been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. A history of sexual assault increases the likelihood of further sexual assault (Finkelhor et al. 2009).

* * *

Sexual assault is not simply a deviant act by a deviant man against an exceptionally unfortunate woman. Rather, it is part of a social cycle in which systemic gender inequality produces gendered violence that then reinforces gender inequality.

Gendered violence is always embedded in wider landscapes of inequality. Examining a wide range of cultures around the world, anthropologist Peggy Sanday (2003) found that the incidence of rape is lower in societies in which men are raised in peaceful, stable environments with an ethos of mutual respect and cooperation between men and women. Conversely, societies that promote gender inequality have more cases of domestic abuse and violence overall (Tracy 2007). Turning to the United States, we observe that American women have the same responsibilities of citizenship as men do (women and men are held to the same set of laws and pay the same taxes), yet women earn 77 cents on each dollar earned by men (White House Council on Women and Girls 2012). For American women, the power to make their own reproductive decisions is limited and in some cases outright denied. While American women have made strides in the public sphere, they remain grossly underrepresented in the highest levels of government where the most consequential decisions are made. The United States currently ranks 81st among nations worldwide in the inclusion of women in government, and 22nd in the economic, political, health, and education status of women (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi 2012).

Gendered violence begets more gendered violence. For the perpetrator, carrying out an act of aggression with impunity feeds a sense of entitlement or, at the very least, a sense that one can get away with it. The majority of rapists and batterers are serial offenders who abuse more than one woman over their lives (Tracy 2007). Donna, a high-energy white woman in her forties, grew up in a home in which her father and brothers were physically and sexually abusive to her and her sister. "My mother was too afraid to say anything," she told us. "My mother would send one of the girls into the bathroom with toilet paper for my father. We all knew what was going on." Although she left home to escape her father's abuse, she quickly found herself married to a controlling and violent man. Donna explains, "I think the reason he hits me is because his father always hit his mom." Together with other structures of dominance, rape is a forceful weapon in the wider arsenal of tools used to generate and preserve gender inequality (Brownmiller 1975; see also A. Davis 1981, esp. p. 178; Hunnicutt 2009). As a "cultural mechanism for inducing a significant transformation of consciousness" (Morris 1991, p. 181), rape reinforces gender stereotypes of masculinity and of femininity.

As one might expect in light of Francesca's childhood experiences, battering fathers tend to be authoritarian, controlling, self-centered, and undermining of the mothers. They are also many times more likely than nonbatterers to sexually abuse their children, especially their daughters (Bancroft, Silverman, & Ritchie 2012). Thus Francesca's "typical macho Italian father" ruled over her timid, ill, and eventually suicidal mother at the same time that her "scumbag" older brother was raping her. Like many abused girls, Francesca criticizes her mother rather than her father for allowing the abuse to happen. Although it sounds to us as if her father held all of the power in the house, Francesca has elevated him to the realm of sainthood—especially now that he is dead. In blaming her mother more than her father, Francesca follows the public tendency to hold mothers more responsible than fathers for protecting their children from a cruel world over which parents have little real control. Still today, when Francesca considers the misery in her life and the lack of adequate assistance with money, housing, and personal safety, she, like most of the other project women, tends to blame (female) caseworkers, nurses, and parole officers far more than she blames the (male) politicians and power brokers who actually make the policies and control the national purse strings.

* * *

The physical and psychic scars of sexual violence direct the attention of the women who bear them to their gender, setting them up for lives in which they are never simply "human" but always "woman," an identity largely defined in terms of sexual victimization and gynecological suffering. What we are describing here is gender overdetermination: a social process in which cultural categories of gender supersede individual experience and identity (Boddy 1988; Sered and Norton-Hawk 2013). Gender overdetermination intersects in complex ways with other statuses and identities. In a multi-city study, Stephanie Riger and Margaret Gordon (2010) found that women with the fewest resources—the elderly, members of ethnic minorities, and those with low incomes—carry the heaviest burden of fear of victimization and a heightened sense ofpowerlessness. While for some women, abuse and its aftermath can lead to new kinds of resilience or to meaningful advocacy and activism, few of the women we have come to know see possibilities for jobs, happiness, or self-fulfillment that are not constrained by gender. Their gendered pain becomes the veil through which they experience their own bodies and lives.

Sexual abuse has broad and long-term consequences that function to perpetuate social inequalities. Childhood abuse is correlated with bruises, fractures, urinary tract infections, delayed physical growth, neurological damage, chronic fatigue, altered immune function, hypertension, obesity, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, risky behaviors, substance abuse, and in extreme cases, death (Herrera & McCloskey 2001; White, Koss, & Kazdin 2011). Women who have been abused by intimate partners or who have been sexually assaulted are more likely than other women to suffer from chronic pelvic pain, fertility problems, high rates of pregnancy complications and perinatal death, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, invasive cervical cancer, hypertension, urinary tract infections, anxiety, and sexually transmitted infections (Martin, Macy, & Young 2011).

A history of having been abused is correlated with a lifetime of earning less money, missing more days of work, and a greater likelihood of becoming homeless (Dáil 2012, p. 17). A 23-city report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (2007) confirmed that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women. For Francesca, poor health clearly renders her unemployable, which makes her more dependent on men and thus more vulnerable to additional sexual violence. For Francesca, as for many women, the physical and emotional suffering resulting from rape, abuse, and sexual coercion led to use of drugs and alcohol. Women who have been raped or abused are more likely than other women to use licit and illicit drugs, to be charged with a crime, and to be incarcerated (McDaniels-Wilson & Belknap 2008; Pelissier & Jones 2006). The impact of violence is cumulative: women who have experienced or witnessed greater numbers of abusive events report higher rates of eating-related problems, greater incidence of STDs and hepatitis, overall poorer self-rated health status, earlier involvement in crime, and more arrests. In this way, violence thrusts women into the caste of the ill and afflicted.

* * *

Criminalized women are twice as likely as other American women to report childhood sexual abuse (45% versus 24%) and more than three times more likely to report family violence while growing up (48% versus 14%) (Messina & Grella 2006). Like Francesca, nearly all criminalized women have experienced poverty, abuse, insecure housing, chronic physical and mental distress, separation from their children, and a host of day-to-day degradations and misfortunes. Nationally, at least 70 percent of incarcerated women report having been raped at some point in their lives, typically more than once and often by multiple abusers; more than 10 percent report gang rape; and 22 percent report anal rape (McDaniels-Wilson & Belknap 2008).

As Francesca learned from her first experience with the institutional circuit, the dominant model for explaining these connections singles out childhood abuse as causing lasting psychological damage that in turn leads to drug use and further victimization. While this causal chain fits the American narrative of individual responsibility for suffering, connections between gender violence and incarceration are far more structural. Running away from home in the wake of sexual abuse launches girls into environments permeated with gendered violence, both on the street and in juvenile facilities. Children who suffer sexual assault are less likely to succeed in school, less likely ever to earn a living wage, and more likely to be incarcerated (Child Welfare Information Services 2008). In fact, running away from home—often to escape abuse in households dominated by violent men—is the charge in the first arrest for nearly a quarter of girls in the juvenile justice system. According to Meda Chesney-Lind and Lisa Pasko (2004, p. 28), "Young women, a large number of whom are on the run from sexual abuse and parental neglect, are forced by the very statutes designed to protect them [statutes disallowing juveniles from leaving custodial parents] into the lives of escaped convicts. Unable to enroll in school or take a job to support themselves because they fear detection [which may result in their being returned to the abusive household], young female runaways often turn to or are forced onto the streets. Here they engage in panhandling, petty theft, and occasional prostitution to survive." On the streets, women are vulnerable to harassment, violence, exploitation, and drug use, all of which drag them into the correctional circuit, where, far too frequently, they experience further abuse.


Excerpted from Can't Catch a Break by Susan Starr Sered, Maureen Norton-Hawk. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward
Appendix: Methodology and Project Participant Overview

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