The Death Penalty, Life Imprisonment, and Other Punitive Measures: What’s the Point?
Recently, a 10-year-old child from my daughter’s class asked me this pertinent question: “What’s the point of learning your lesson if you never get a chance to show that you did?” The answer is simple: not much. Unfortunately, rehabilitation is often not at the heart of criminal justice reform. In fact, the harshness of a punishment is frequently not determined by the possibility of recidivism, but rather by public opinion and as a result misses the point.
If you ask children what the purpose of a punishment is, most will say “to learn your lesson.” This is why life imprisonment and the death penalty don’t make much sense to them. Yet in the United States alone, 140,000 people are currently serving life sentences, and 41,000 of them have no chance of ever getting released. Meanwhile, more than 3,200 people were on death row by the end of 2011, also in the United States.
Recently, a 10-year-old child from my daughter’s class asked me this pertinent question: “What’s the point of learning your lesson if you never get a chance to show that you did?” The answer is simple: not much. Unfortunately, rehabilitation (the adult word for “learning a lesson”) is often not at the heart of criminal justice reform. In fact, the harshness of a punishment is frequently not determined by the possibility of recidivism, but rather by public opinion.
Take, for example, sex offenders in the United States. Long sentences and additional punitive measures such as sex registries and zoning laws are often imposed with the explicit goal of preventing further crime after news reports of particularly heinous acts, notably those involving children or that end in death. Yet the majority of former sex offenders do not re-offend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders. Meanwhile, most sexual abuse against children goes unreported. Further, about 30 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a relative of the child, and another 60 percent by someone the child knows well.
In other words: the imposition of harsher punishment does little to generate the lesson-learning and change we need to prevent abuse in the first place. But punitive measures meted out through criminal laws and restrictive policies often have other objectives than rehabilitation, the two most prominent being deterrence and control.
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Deterrence is perhaps the most frequently mentioned reason to strengthen sentencing laws. This Sunday, India’s president approved new sexual assault provisions, including for the first time the possibility of death sentences for rape cases in which the victim dies. The Indian government’s sudden and accelerated interest in sexual violence was fueled by the public uproar after five men viciously raped a young woman, Joyti Singh, on December 16, 2012. Singh later died as a result of the rape. The new ordinance has been criticized by Indian women’s groups for side-stepping several very real issues, such as for example marital rape, which is rife in India (and many other places too).
Equally to the point, not very many of the rapes that do occur in India (or elsewhere) are reported, let alone investigated, and prosecuted. An infinitely small proportion of rapes committed end with convictions and actual sentences imposed. The resulting impunity means that perpetrators have little incentive to look at or think about the potential consequences of their acts in terms of jail time.
Social control through stigma is another objective for longer sentencing. The length of the punishment assigned by the law signals the weight of our disapproval of that act. This is the reason we are offended by laws that mete out stronger sentences for stealing a cow or growing pot than for rape: we expect the law to be proportional and “fair.” And control through stigma certainly has a role in rehabilitation and lesson-learning. Studies show that people are less likely to engage in behaviour they believe is wrong than in behaviour they know to be illegal but don’t think of as morally wrong.
But stigma cuts many ways. When we criminalize an act, the stigma attaches both to the act and to the person doing it—or even to persons associated with the act. The stronger the stigma, the more likely the person will be vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. It is, for example, virtually impossible for a convicted felon to find a job after jail, yet studies are clear that getting a job is key to preventing recidivism.
Obviously, the relationship between morality, the law, and criminal behaviour is complex that has been subject to study for decades. But at the most basic level, whenever we as a society agree to impose sanctions and punitive measures, we should be asking ourselves the question of a 10-year-old: what’s the point? In many cases, we’ll find that even if there was an original point, it doesn’t bear out in practice.
Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.
Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.
A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.
There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.
When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”
Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.
This isn’t the story I wanted.
Unlearning My Training
I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.
If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendencyto demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.
On top of that, the biblical literalism frequentlyrequired by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.
Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”
Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.
But Some Habits Die Hard
Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.
When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.
He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.
When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.
So…I brought him home.
This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.
That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.
Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.
As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?
When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.
I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!
If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.
That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.
He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.
Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.
Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”
With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.
I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”
“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”
Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.
It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?
Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.
I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!
All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.
The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are
Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.
Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.
It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.
Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.
So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?
Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.
Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.
We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.”Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.
So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.
For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.
I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.
In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.
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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.
I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.
I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.
I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.
I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.
I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.
I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.
I am 22 and my friend—the first I know of—tells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortions, she will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.
I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.
Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announced, but it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.