In an Abusive State

How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence

In an Abusive State

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 3 illustrations Published: April 2008

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Globalization and Neoliberalism, Politics > Public Policy

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.


In An Abusive State provides an important and provocative critique of feminist antiviolence work, rooted in an analysis of multiple primary sources. Aimed at a scholarly audience, this dense and challenging text powerfully demonstrates how legal and medical discourses on violence disempower women.” — Carrie N. Baker, Perspectives on Politics

“[T]his is one of the most invigorating and challenging books I have read for years. It is a ‘must-read’.” — Joanna Bourke, Times Higher Education

“Bumiller highlights the unfortunate conditions under which women seek help, particularly from state institutions. She calls for a feminist vision that addresses human dignity and helps women negotiate their empowerment within a dismantled social welfare system.” — R. Dianne Bartlow, Ms.

“I applaud the reach and depth of Bumiller’s analysis and her call for a radical re-appraisal. Everyone should read this book for its message of critical reflection on past and present practices, and the need for a future agenda that is informed by social justice principles.” — Kathleen Daly, Theoretical Criminology

“Quite frankly, In an Abusive State is a phenomenal work. . . . [O]ne of the most eye-opening and fantastic books I've read in a while.” — Yujean Park, Feminist Review Blog

“Some of the most valuable social movement scholarship critically evaluates the success of movement strategies, looking at intended and unintended consequences, the formation of new political ideas, alliances, and norms, and internal understandings of efficacy. Kristen Bumiller’s In an Abusive State is a significant and thought-provoking addition to this body of scholarship. Combining analytic approaches from political science and feminist studies, Bumiller addresses some of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of US feminism’s investment in state redress.” — Judith Taylor, Canadian Journal of Sociology

“The book is an excellent exploration of how the feminist movement to improve the lives of women affected by rape and battering has been preempted, indeed perhaps hijacked, by the movement for greater criminalization in the United States since the 1970s.” — Gayle Binion, Politics & Gender

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


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Price: $25.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4239-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4220-5
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