“Perpetrator” vs. “Victim” and the Impact of Carceral Logic

The following is the third in a series of posts that are inspired by the Action Alliance’s soon-to-be-released Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing.

You can find the previous posts here:  

1: Sparking Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing 

2: Accountability Is a Healing Practice…And Unfortunately, Most of Us Aren’t Very Good At It

Scroll to the end to find out more about our upcoming webinar (June 25th) and how to gain access to this new resource!  

Most people who have caused harm have also survived it. But how often do we think of “perpetrators” as “victims/survivors?” too? The victim/perpetrator binary describes the habit of dividing people into one of two categories: either “victims” or “perpetrators.” These terms have been a part of our movement’s language for decades.

However, the binary of someone being either a victim or a perpetrator clouds the complexities of people’s experiences. It’s important to recognize that most people who have been harmed have committed harm as well. And when it comes to people who perpetrate violence, most are also survivors…and were survivors first. To put it simply, most of us are both/and, rather than either/or.

What do we mean by “both/and”?

Think about the people you know whom you consider “survivors.” In what ways have they resisted abuse by using strategies that might otherwise be considered controlling?  

Now think about the people you know whom you consider “perpetrators.” In what ways have they been abused or otherwise victimized?

  • Were they abused or neglected as children?
  • Were they child witnesses to domestic violence?
  • Have they survived sexual violence?
  • Have they been ostracized, bullied, harassed, isolated, or had their potential and/or economic security limited by others’ acts of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, or xenophobia?

As advocates, what do we do when a “perpetrator” is also a survivor? What do we do when a “survivor” has also caused harm?

What is carceral logic and how does it affect our work?

The movement to respond to and prevent sexual and domestic violence was formed as a liberation movement with a vision of naming, breaking free from, and dismantling patriarchal and racist structures, expectations, oppression, and violence.

Somewhere along the line, however, our movement’s focus shifted from liberation to a more crime-centered approach; we moved away from naming violence against women as a tool of oppression to defining it as a criminal act.

Carceral logic[1] theorizes that punishment is the best way to address harm and achieve justice. It divides us into victims and perpetrators as though our worst behaviors are enduring personality traits, whereas accountability approaches see harm as the impact of behavior that can be acknowledged and even repaired.

And while sexual and domestic violence are serious and violate what should be considered acceptable behavior in society, focusing on violence against women solely as a crime, where a “perpetrator” (a crime-based term) harms a “victim,” does our movement a significant disservice.

Using a crime-centered frame hides structural inequalities that make some people (like trans and non-binary people, people of color, and people without U.S. citizenship) more vulnerable to violence.[2]

When we invest in carceral systems that create more trauma survivors[3] and when we fight for harsher penalties in the name of “victim safety,” our actions communicate that only certain types of survivors are worth protecting.

A simple way to revive our liberationist roots

How do we move away from this counterproductive binary of victim/perpetrator and revive the liberationist roots of our movement? One way is to dream up more restorative options for responses to violence that don’t rely on punishment or violence. Learning about and practicing accountability is a liberationist approach: the person who causes harm has the opportunity to acknowledge the harm and its impact, take reparative action, and make the changes necessary to avoid causing harm in the future. It can transform relationships and even free us.

In order to be able to practice effective accountability at the organizational or community level, we must first learn how to do it on an interpersonal level; a great place to start is practicing with colleagues who share our commitment to building toward a just and equitable future where we all get to thrive.

How do we start these conversations?

The Action Alliance is releasing a new discussion guide, the Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet, to help those of us working in sexual and domestic violence programs begin to think more broadly about what accountability can and should look like, not only after harm is committed, but also in all aspects of our lives: our relationships, families, workplaces, and communities.

Want to get your hands on the new discussion guide? 

The Action Alliance will hold a webinar on Tuesday, June 25, 2 pm-4 pm to launch the new Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing. Webinar participants will be introduced to the discussion guide and its conversation starters and will be given free download access to the new discussion guide.

Register here (look for “Harm and Accountability Toolkit” as the training title)! 

Kate McCord is the Associate Director for the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has worked in the movement for more than 30 years.

 [1] https://sunflowerradicaljournal.medium.com/what-do-we-mean-when-we-use-the-word-carceral-8da00333d8f3.

[2] Danielle Sered. Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017.

[3] CNN: Study finds nearly 1 in 10 state prisoners is sexually abused while incarcerated. https://www.cnn.com/2012/05/17/us/us-state-prisons-abuse/index.html.

Read more news

Find Support Near You

Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies

  • Start Typing Locality