In the words of Tammy Wynette, “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” Just as she sang, being a feminist who supports survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence and also believes in decarceration and criminal justice reform can be difficult, especially when trying to reconcile with those championing harsh punishments by the state as the solution to sexual violence. Wait. Maybe I’m remembering that song wrong.
A new four-part series on Amazon Prime, “Lorena,” about Lorena Bobbit and her famous crime, unwittingly exposes that very conflict. It’s a terrific documentary produced by the comedian / writer / director Jordan Peele. Yet the takeaway message –that the criminal justice system should intervene more in domestic and sexual violence issues – is problematic. Example A: the documentary’s kindly “country lawyer” prosecutor who represents the protection of that system: notorious former Prince William DA Paul Ebert.
Ebert is Lorena’s winking, “I get it,” secret champion. The series heavily implies, as does Washingtonian magazine’s oral history of the case, that Ebert threw Lorena’s conviction. He went out of his way to connect a witness to the defense, and to a state expert who later recanted and switched sides. The sense in the documentary is that Ebert had it right. In a world that didn’t believe Anita or Lorena, the prosecutor knew who the real victim was, and ensured the fairest outcome possible (by manipulating the system.) Which is…. commendable?
We’ve written about Ebert many times. Here and here and here we expose him as a zealously death-seeking prosecutor whose cases collapsed under judicial rebuke for prosecutorial misconduct. Ebert has gone above and beyond, even personally threatening a jailhouse informant that he would bring a death penalty case against him if the informant didn’t stick to his story.
Lorena also features feminist activist Kim Gandy, talking about the 1994 passage of the Violence Against Women Act in the wake of the Lorena Bobbitt case. It allocated $1.6 billion dollars for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, imposed mandatory minimums, and did other things that imply faith in the carceral state.
This is a real struggle in the #MeToo era and for feminists generally: if the problem is defined as rampant sexual violence committed with impunity, one solution is asking the state to more aggressively enter those situations, protect the victims and punish the guilty. However, the appeal of that solution depends on how much faith you have in the benefits of expanding state power to investigate and prosecute the accused – which depends very much on where you are situated in society.
Feminist Wendy Brown wrestled with this very problem in her influential 1995 book, “States of Injury,” writing
“Whether one is dealing with the state, the Mafia, parents, pimps, police, or husbands, the heavy price of institutionalized protection is always a measure of dependence and agreement to abide by the protector’s rules. As Rousseau’s elegant critique of “civil slavery” made so clear, institutionalized political protection necessarily entails surrendering individual and collective power to legislate and adjudicate for ourselves in exchange for external guarantees of physical security.”
If one of them has to be vested with control over another person’s life and liberty, Paul Ebert is a vastly superior alternative to John Wayne Bobbitt. But the point here is that freedom means not being at the mercy of anyone’s character or integrity. Systems that give unchecked power to individuals create abuses of power, whether by a prosecuting attorney or an intimate partner. Simply calling for more law enforcement without recognizing the urgent and simultaneous need for criminal justice reform can only result in a new set of imperfect gatekeepers who hold the power over victims of sexual violence.