Abolish the Box: Moving Beyond Criminality in Addressing Sexual Violence

Silhouette of Masculine person pulling prison bars apart
Image via Defenstrator.org

Guest post by the Incarceration to Education Coalition

We, the Incarceration to Education Coalition, are a group of activists working to eradicate barriers to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people. Our primary goal is to abolish the Box, the question on college applications that forces applicants to disclose their “criminal” records. Our vision is abolitionist, and our founding principle is that education is a human right.


Throughout our hundreds of conversations with fellow students, community members, and administrators, we have received support and affirmation, but also racism, fear, and institutional violence. One of the most consistent responses we have received is, “What about sexual assault?” Concerns have been raised about the viability of our campaign in the current climate, in which Title IX protections and sexual assaults on college campuses have captured the public’s attention.


As survivors of sexual violence, women, queer, and people of all colors and economic backgrounds we have survived institutional, administrative, structural, private and state violence, and we refuse to be deterred by  arguments that once again use our bodies as shields to buffer patriarchy. We demand a change in the conversation. Insisting that “The Box keeps you safe,” completely dismisses our wisdom as survivors. Saying to us, “We must continue surveillance over formerly incarcerated people–for your sake,” is a refusal to end violence, or to work towards imaginative and just remedies. Our institutions have a cruel history of refusing to acknowledge violence against women until it is politically useful or necessary, and even when they do acknowledge it, they usually perpetuate violence by fostering shame, silence, and criminalization. Our intention is not to discredit any of the activists fighting for Title IX protections on campuses across the country. Rather, we acknowledge that using rape to maintain and produce white supremacy, racism, and the criminalization of people of color does not comfort or heal those of us who have survived sexual assault.


Using rape in this way fuels a standard narrative of violence that casts cisgender men–especially Black and brown men–as rapists and cisgender women as victims. This narrative tasks our institutions with protecting cisgender, white women. When we say “Abolish the Box!,” they respond  “What about the rapists?” When we entrust institutions with the power to respond to violence, the only choice left for survivors in seeking justice is criminalization and the status quo of appealing to the state. This narrative furthers the work of the prison industrial complex and its heteropatriarchal foundation: by only acknowledging the harm that is caused between cisgender, heterosexual men and women, heteropatriarchy is more deeply entrenched; it justifies the conception of certain communities as aggressive, and others as more prone to victimhood; it enforces heterosexism and requires policing and enforcement of the gender binary and sexual behaviors.


Everything outside this white and heteropatriarchal norm is ignored: non-heterosexual violence, harm and policing experienced by trans people, intimate partner violence between queer people, men who are harmed by other men: all of this is hidden. The voices of survivors who are not cisgender, white, and middle class women are silenced, much in the same way violence against white women used to be unacknowledged. Decades of feminism have moved us incrementally closer to acknowledging sexual and gender motivated violence, but calling on criminalization as the best response to this harm has resulted in institutionalized heteropatriarchy and enormously detrimental narratives that exploit colonial understandings of race. This is what we are up against: the expansion of the prison industrial complex in the service of heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Our educational institutions are feeding the carceral continuum and barring access to resources for those who have been deemed “violent” by this narrative of cisgender violence of men violating women. The Box is a means of surveillance that bolsters the authority of these institutions which are otherwise apathetic to sexual violence.


Advocating for Title IX protections is a call to our institutions to end their indifference toward sexualized aggression. Abolishing the Box is a call to our institutions to interrogate the issues further and rewrite the story: we cannot let our experiences as survivors continue to be objectified within patriarchal transactions. Responses to our campaign that attempt to shift the conversation away from abolishing criminalization and policing, and onto rape and sex “offenders” reveal a deep investment in criminalization as a remedy to sexual violence. This perpetuates the fearful myth that formerly incarcerated people are “sexually aggressive,” or more likely to cause harm.


This also does nothing to center the experience of survivors. The expansion of the punishment system is not a solution: the prison industrial complex is rooted in heteropatriarchy. Just as survivors have resisted the flexible and nuanced ways in which systems of misogyny continually silence women while policing their “purity” and sexuality, motherhood, and gender expression, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence can stand against the carceral system. This comes with the understanding of the prison industrial complex as one of domination and control that violently enforces the gender binary and reproduces misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, and sexual violence; every aspect of it perpetuates violence. The abolition of prisons and the punishment system is essential to dismantling heteropatriarchy.


A truly just system gives women and others who have experienced violence what they need to move forward; it also holds society accountable to communities who have historically borne the brunt of colonial and supremacist violence. It does not pressure survivors to pursue legal action or testify to the state, or place the burden of proof on those who have been harmed. It does not offer imprisonment and the perpetuation of violence as the only solution. Criminalization does nothing to provide what we need, and instead perpetuates the cycles of violence that have always intimately impacted the daily lives of women and queer people–particularly those of color who are poor. A society without patriarchy is a society without prisons, one that can still hold men accountable for violence towards women, that has the capacity to truly confront and work to eradicate sexualized aggression instead of selectively utilizing a patriarchal conception of victimized womanhood that maintains the roots of this violence.


It is our task to imagine an alternative and to hold our institutions accountable in being creative and transformative with us. We can demand our educational institutions, places of work, and our state, to reckon with a different, more complex, and just narrative. We must demand them to center survivors and work towards addressing harm outside of the prison industrial complex.


What we want is an advancement of human rights that acknowledges historical oppression and works to rectify that deep imbalance cemented by colonialism. Access to a free education is a critical component of this process, and thus the extension of mass incarceration into the educational system is absolutely unacceptable. Education is a human right: this means that we must all have the ability to move through educational institutions freely, to have the time and space to self-actualize and grow, to bring the wisdom of our disparate communities to our systems of higher education, and to have that wisdom heard and reckoned with. Unacknowledged and unjust responses to sexual violence impede on this human right. Screening for “criminal” records impedes this human right. People who are directly impacted by the punishment system must be able to take full command of their human right to education, and unless we work to dismantle heteropatriarchy while we open the doors to education, we will not be able to achieve accountability and justice.

We hope that people fighting for Title IX protections will understand the Abolish the Box campaign as we do: as a struggle for justice that should not be held in opposition to establishing systems of accountability for those who cause harm. Our work, together, is to ask difficult questions: What do survivors need? How can we end patriarchal harm? Can we end violence for all, including institutional and state violence, instead of resorting to violent narratives of safety for the select few?

3 thoughts on “Abolish the Box: Moving Beyond Criminality in Addressing Sexual Violence

  1. Sounds good in theory.. until you ask the parent of a 18 year old girl if they mind that the co – ed dorm she will be staying in also will house ex – convicts that have served time for rape, child porn, aggravated assault, etc.. then the theory kind of withers away.. kind of like Obama vocally supporting public education until it came to their daughters.. possibly eliminate the box for admissions, but still have some restrictions with regards to housing options and other common sense issues

    1. Please tell us all about which presidents sent their children and grand children to public schools in DC. You are a simpleton who imagines that being simple minded is ignorance being every bit as valid as knowledge.

  2. whoa! when I send my kids to college I will not assume anything about their dorm mates, period. I will have taught them about consent and about boundary setting and trusting their instincts about people to stay away from. I want them to be able to say “no” and “yes” with equal force and conviction. In my head, they are in just as much danger from every person in that dorm. I don’t assume that everyone is a convicted rapist, but I also don’t assume that anyone is too nice to have raped someone because they got into college. Frankly, if someone in the hall was convicted of child porn possession, I’d probably figure that that person wouldn’t rape other 18 year olds.

    I could be wrong, but the reports that I’ve heard about sexual assaults on college campuses mostly happened in off campus housing – frat houses, sports related housing, etc. i.e. places where there is more than average amounts of entitlement felt by the inhabitants. Maybe we should institute a box instead of the criminal records box that says “check here if you feel entitled to women’s bodies/attention/emotional labor.”

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