Review: Imperfect Victims Documents Women Who Are Prosecuted for Defending Themselves

Author Leigh Goodmark's end goals of abolishing prisons and defunding police are hard to swallow.


Women who suffer years of physical violence finally fight back, and wind up in prison. Rape victims jailed as "material witnesses" to compel their testimony. Teens exploited by violent pimps who themselves get charged with sex trafficking. Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism is filled with story after infuriating story of such situations.

The book, from University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark, takes a detailed look at how girls and women come to be arrested, prosecuted, and punished for such actions as defending themselves against violence or refusing to participate in the prosecution of someone who victimized them.

The roots of many such injustices, Goodmark explains, are ironically found in policies pushed by anti-violence advocates meant to help survivors of spousal abuse, sexual violence, and other crimes that disproportionately affect women. These carceral solutions have failed to decrease violence, but they have had "significant consequences for the victims of that violence," writes Goodmark.

Her solution—"abolition feminism"—aims to move "away from a mindset that equates punishment with justice." Ultimately, it would involve abolishing prisons and defunding police. Goodmark's end goals are hard to swallow: Like so many criminal justice abolitionists, her alternatives rely on a mix of vague and utopian visions (we need "a different world entirely," where everyone's needs are met and racism and patriarchy are dismantled) and ignoring the fact that material conditions can't fully account for human passions and prejudices. Nor does she explain how to address ongoing violence from those resistant to restorative justice.

But Goodmark also offers plenty of less radical ideas for action. These include decriminalizing sex work, opposing "new criminal laws that purport to make society safer while increasing the reach of the carceral state," repealing mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence situations, and fighting for clemency for those unfairly imprisoned.