In early April, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone can be strip searched for any offense upon being arrested. This is devastating news for those of us who are survivors of sexual assault and/or police violence, as well as anyone who is in jail or could be arrested for any reason. We don’t want anyone in jail or prison – our long-term goal is to get rid of the system that locks people up. But as long as jails and prisons exist, we have to speak out against rulings like these. According to the American Bar Association, international human rights treaties ban the procedures that the Supreme Court just approved. Regardless of whether you are in police custody or not, there are basic human rights that everyone has, and basic respect that everyone deserves. Strip searches are humiliating and unnecessary.
The ruling extends this humiliation beyond the walls of prisons and jails — noted sites of sexual violence where strip searches are already used regularly without cause under the transparent pretense of creating safety. People imprisoned at Pennsylvania’s Rockview and Somerset facilities recently reported guards performing harassing strip searches, sexual groping, fondling, and making rape threats. Strip searches are a police weapon used outside prisons too. Consider the 2003 case of Ana Nogueira, a reporter for Democracy Now!, who was stripped by male police at a demonstration in Miami, Florida. Nogueira was able to access sufficient resources to successfully win a lawsuit. That expensive post-violation legal option is now gone, further discouraging free speech among current and would-be activists and journalists.
With the already numerous examples of stripping and sexual humiliation being used by the state, the Supreme Court ruling creates a slippery slope. It’s not a far jump from strip searches to sexual violence being used as a way to control and victimize people in police custody. It also allows for a culture of normalized sexual humiliation, making it easier for corrections officers and other prisoners to enact sexual violence.
This practice also inordinately affects people who are already marginalized in society. People who have histories of sexual and/or police violence will may have strong emotional reactions and relived trauma while being strip searched. Queer and trans people may be singled out and humiliated for not fitting social norms and will potentially be at risk for more sexual violence from arresting officers. Trans people in particular may be exposed to additional violence if their trans status is discovered when strip-searched.
The Florence v. County of Burlington Supreme Court decision is a way of scaring all of us so that we don’t challenge state power for fear of being arrested and sexually humiliated. This is another way that the state uses sexual violence as a means of control. This chilling effect is particularly strong for those of us who are more likely to be victims of police violence anyway, because of our race, class, sexual orientation, trans, HIV or immigration status, work in the sex trade, or any number of other reasons. Philly Survivor Support Collective believes that all of us deserve to live lives free of sexual violence. We believe that courts, police and prisons do not help us end sexual assault and rape, but rather increase it. We can only hope that this ruling will be a wake-up call for our allies in the fight to end rape and sexual assault, so we can come together in agreement that as long as we embrace policing and prisons as responses to sexual violence, we will never get there.