UC Santa Barbara Black studies professor Terrance Wooten delivered a Feb. 16 lecture on how the theory and practice of prison abolition has accommodated perpetrators of sexual harm.

The talk is titled “Beyond Perpetrators: Black Men Against Sexual Violence and the Genealogy of Prison Abolition.” Courtesy of Terrance Wooten

The talk was hosted by the Center for Black Studies Research (CBSR) in partnership with The Learning Institute for Visionary Epistemologies in S.T.E.M. Fields & Interdisciplinary Studies (L.I.V.E.S.) — an organization dedicated to “understanding and deploying knowledge from cultural perspectives and diverse ideologies,” according to their website

Wooten’s lecture — which was attended in person and on Zoom — delved into a major criticism of the abolitionist movement: If prisons, policing and systems of punishment were to disappear, how should society deal with perpetrators of sexual violence?

Wooten explained in his interview with the Nexus that his attempts to answer the question stemmed from his time working at an adult male houseless shelter in Washington, D.C. that refused to house sex offenders outside of the winter months.

“We didn’t take sex offenders because they were unhouseable, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s so interesting,’ because we’re saying we’re going to end homelessness in the nation and yet we’re creating a permanently unhouseable category of humans,” Wooten said. “And so this became my project, I became really interested in the relationship between homelessness and sex offense.” 

Wooten began the talk with a discussion of the history of the abolition movement, highlighting important Black activists such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore who have extensively critiqued prison systems.

“There’s a long genealogy of folks who have called for abolition of what has been coined ‘the prison industrial complex,’” Wooten said in an interview with the Nexus. “These folks have mapped out — as scholars, as activists, as politically educated folks — the necessity, if we want to move to anything that we can imagine as a quality, to actually get rid of carceral systems.”

Wooten noted that abolition is not only about “defunding the police” and allocating funds to the community, but also about fundamentally questioning these law enforcement institutions that people trust to promote safety.

“[Abolition is] about living with each other in a very different way,” Wooten said. “It’s both the abolition of a set of institutions and practices and ideologies and the building of new, more restorative, transformative modes of being with each other and modes of accountability for when injury happens that doesn’t rely upon the state.”

Wooten explained in the lecture that his inquiry into carceral systems and perpetrators of sexual harm led him to the archives of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) at Smith College, where he uncovered the history of an organization called Prisoners Against Rape (P.A.R.).

“The talk really was about looking at this history of an organization called Prisoners Against Rape, which was founded in 1973 as a group of Black men in prison who identified as rapists who were doing anti-sexual-violence work, doing prison abolition work and working with anti-sexual-violence organizations outside of prisons,” Wooten said in the interview. 

Wooten was interested in Prisoners Against Rape members’ arguments that their motivation to sexually abuse others was socially imposed by dynamics of power and control, and that being inside of the prison system actually strengthened their desires to harm.

“What they’ve named is that rape culture flourishes in prisons, that rape is a technology of control [and] domination that operates within the prison,” Wooten said. “And so we can’t then have prisons as a way to solve the question of rapists, because it misrecognizes how the prison system is one that is part of rape and reproduces rape culture.”

Other than introducing convicted sexual predators to feminist literature, which was one of Prisoners Against Rape’s primary activities, Wooten noted that his archival research did not provide a universal answer for how to handle perpetrators of sexual harm without prisons. However, he said that Prisoners Against Rape created a significant groundwork for abolitionist activists to build on their efforts.

“[This talk] is an invitation to build on our past,” Wooten said. “How can we learn from these histories from the ’70s and earlier to think about modes of building community coalitions to dismantle systems that are injurious with folks who also have injured?

“Abolition is a process, a long process, of chipping away at a system of domination and building the alternative, and Prisoners Against Rape was doing that work,” Wooten continued. “​​It was chipping away at a system of rape culture and prison culture, and at the same time, building collectives of people who wanted to do this work.”

Before turning to the DCRCC archives, Wooten said he received feedback from colleagues that his work with perpetrators of sexual assault was flawed, since it was not truly a feminist project as long as he was centering the narrative of the perpetrators and not the people who are injured.

“People would ask the question of, ‘Well, what about the folks who are harmed? You’re centering the voices of harmers, but what about those who are injured? And does that not reproduce harm because too often the harmless narratives are the ones who exist? And how is this, for some people, a feminist project?’”

Wooten’s response to these criticisms was his suspicion that there were female activists who engaged in similar projects in the past. Wooten turned to the DCRCC because, as an organization, it has historically centered women of color, and in learning about the center’s involvement with P.A.R., he said his suspicions were proved correct. 

“I thought ‘OK, well, let’s start with women of color activism in the D.C. metropolitan area with the D.C. Rape Crisis Center to see if they were doing any of this work,’” he said. “I had presumed that they probably had been doing some kind of activist work, and trusting my gut [I came] to find out I was right.”

Wooten acknowledged that sexual harm can be difficult to talk about especially for those who have been closely affected by sexual violence; he encouraged those who haven’t been impacted by sexual violence to acknowledge the privilege in having the capability to distance themselves from the topic. 

“This project and my work and what I think Black studies represents is that everything that we do is ‘difficult,’ and it’s about asking people, and in some ways, expecting people to sit in that ‘difficulty’ because it’s a privilege to be able to opt out. It’s a privilege to not be to not be part of that history,” he said.

To learn more about topics similar to the material he talked about during his lecture, Wooten encouraged UCSB students to take courses offered by the Departments of Black Studies, Chicano and Chicana Studies, Asian American Studies and Feminist Studies.

“Take our classes, and not just take our classes to enroll in them … take our classes seriously,” Wooten said. “Because there is so much knowledge here on this campus, so much knowledge being produced in ethnic studies. And if students don’t come, they won’t find it.” 

A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the Feb. 23, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Alex Levin
Alex Levin (he/him) is the University News Editor for the 2023-24 school year. Previously, Levin was the Assistant News Editor for the 2022-2023 school year. He can be reached at alexlevin@dailynexus.com.