Built on Women’s Bodies

The following is an excerpt from Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong To Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification.

Police power was built on women’s bodies.

Men, especially Black men, often stand in as the ultimate symbol of the mass incarceration crisis in the United States. Women are treated as marginal, if not overlooked altogether, in histories of the criminal legal system. In The Streets Belong to Us—a searing history of women and police in the modern United States—Anne Gray Fischer narrates how sexual policing fueled a dramatic expansion of police power. The enormous discretionary power that police officers wield to surveil, target, and arrest anyone they deem suspicious was tested, legitimized, and legalized through the policing of women’s sexuality and their right to move freely through city streets.

Throughout the twentieth century, police departments achieved a stunning consolidation of urban authority through the strategic discretionary enforcement of morals laws, including disorderly conduct, vagrancy, and other prostitution-related misdemeanors. Between Prohibition in the 1920s and the rise of “broken windows” policing in the 1980s, police targeted white and Black women in distinct but interconnected ways. These tactics reveal the centrality of racist and sexist myths to the justification and deployment of state power. Sexual policing did not just enhance police power. It also transformed cities from segregated sites of “urban vice” into the gentrified sites of Black displacement and banishment we live in today. By illuminating both the racial dimension of sexual liberalism and the gender dimension of policing in Black neighborhoods, The Streets Belong to Us illustrates the decisive role that race, gender, and sexuality played in the construction of urban police regimes.

Happy belated book birthday to Fischer’s The Streets Belong To Us, officially on sale now! The Streets Belong To Us was also featured recently on one of our Women’s History Month 2022 reading lists, curated by Sonya Bonczek.

“We are staging out here on Las Vegas Boulevard,” Officer Calvin Wandick told a ride-along television crew for Cops in 2012. “This is one of the main fairways for working girls. So we’re going to be patrolling, and see … what kind of crime we can stop.” Then Wandick got down to work, pulling two Black women out of the crowd for an interrogation.

His line of questioning concerned the women’s age, their clothes, and what was really in the bottles of iced tea they were carrying. One woman was nineteen years old—below the legal drinking age. Officer Raquita Reyes, Wandick’s partner, demanded to know how long the woman had been “working,” while Wandick rifled through her purse and took out her pepper spray, tactical pen, and condoms. Turning her tools of personal protection into evidence against her, Wandick concluded, “She’s out here for all the wrong reasons,” even though when the officers stopped her, she had only been engaging in the common practice of underage drinking. Apparently being a poor Black woman in public was enough to constitute “all the wrong reasons.”

The woman saw it differently. “I’m a human being just like everybody else,” she protested as Wandick cuffed her. “I’m not doing nothing but walking up and down, looking at the lights.” Why shouldn’t she have the same right to the street as any of the thousands of nightly visitors to the Las Vegas Strip?

Officers routinely apprehend Black women for less. Television shows like Cops feature police detaining women for “lurking in shadows,” “standing on the street corner,” “loitering outside [a] business,” or “walking in the street where the sidewalks are provided.” When police justify this use of their time for the benefit of the cameras, they claim they’re performing a community service. “It’s best for her, best for the community, and best for Las Vegas Boulevard that we get her off the street,” Wandick said as he led the shackled Black woman into a police van. Every day, poor Black women are arrested simply because of their physical presence on city streets. Audiences might recognize these encounters as regrettable, even unjust, but police logic encourages viewers to dismiss them as mundane casualties of public order—the price of keeping women, families, and cities safe.

Law enforcement has been a crucial mechanism to control Black women’s labor and restrict their freedom since Emancipation, if not before then. However, authorities’ justifications to legitimize this power have changed over time. When contemporary police deploy the argument—commodified for mass consumption—that public safety and economic growth require the mass removal of poor Black women from city streets, they are simultaneously perpetuating deeply rooted social hierarchies and producing a historically specific vision of gendered criminality.

Across the twentieth century, the boundaries of lawful womanhood—a concept that is an active ideological process, necessarily animated by changing ideas about race, sexuality, and class—were being renegotiated. Urban authorities, social scientists, journalists, reformers, activists, and policed women themselves debated who had a right to public space, what constituted licit behavior and who conformed to it, and whose alleged sexual activity sustained the social order and whose threatened to destroy it. Sexual policing—the targeting and legal control of people’s bodies and their presumed sexual activities—played a uniquely powerful role in redrawing and enforcing these shifting boundaries because it defined interlocking hierarchies of Blackness, whiteness, and sexual morality in real time. Through sexual policing, law enforcement helped to create the intertwined social meanings and legal rights of Black and white womanhood.

Officers can approach any woman and arrest her for any reason. But they do not. This book narrates the historical process of how and why different women are made vulnerable to sexual policing. Asking this question showcases how the state recalibrated lethal social inequalities, even as sexual norms underwent dramatic revision; how the enforcement of normative white sexuality generated breathtaking power for urban police; and how sexual policing was foundational to the spatial and economic formation of modern cities.

Officers’ everyday power to interrogate and arrest is so normalized in the prevailing understanding of police practices that it conceals the material violence perpetrated against vulnerable women. Sexual policing degrades women’s rights to city streets, and arrests trigger cascading repercussions, including lost wages, jobs, housing, and child custody. The extreme power asymmetry between police and targeted women directly enables police to perpetrate gender-based violence such as sexual assault and the extortion of sex in exchange for withholding arrest. By compounding vulnerable women’s economic and social instability, sexual policing—rather than serving a function of public safety—makes policed women, their families, and the communities they live in less safe. These harms are not merely the unfortunate side effects of a small corner of law enforcement. Rather, sexual policing is an engine of police power.

Anne Gray Fischer is assistant professor of history at University of Texas at Dallas.