Sexual Misconduct in Everyday Policing: Experiences of State-Sanctioned Misogyny, Dehumanization and Racialized Sexual Violence in New York City


Priscilla Bustamante


Critical Social/Personality Psychology

Project Title:

Sexual Misconduct in Everyday Policing: Experiences of State-Sanctioned Misogyny, Dehumanization and Racialized Sexual Violence in New York City

Priscilla is in the process of obtaining a PhD in Critical Social Psychology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research broadly focuses on the impacts of state-sanctioned dehumanization; the policing of race, class, gender and sexuality; and the critical psychology of privilege, oppression, and resistance. Her work on cumulative dehumanization and discretionary arrests is published in Race and Justice (2017), Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2018), and Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (in press).

She is the recipient of the 2018 Lightner Witmer Award for Psychology and Law, as well as the Presidential MAGNET Fellowship, Advanced Research Praxis Fellowship, and the Dean K. Harrison Research Award at the City University of New York. Priscilla has also served as an Adjunct Lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and an undergraduate academic advisor for the City University of New York’s Pipeline Program. Prior to graduate school, she obtained her B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from Wesleyan University, and worked for several non-profit community organizations in New York City.


In the era of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, both police misconduct and sexual violence have been unveiled as pressing issues too often ignored in public discourse. Yet the intersection of these subjects has still not been fully addressed. Police sexual violence (PSV) currently constitutes the second most common police complaint reported after excessive force (The Cato Institute, 2010). Officers agree that PSV is a pervasive problem (Tromadore, 2016); however, the extent of this pervasiveness is still unknown. A recent study has found that police are caught for some form of sexual misconduct once every five days (Bodde & Lorshbough, 2018), while another reveals that 40% of young women in New York City report sexual harassment by the police (Fine et al., 2003). Moreover, given that more than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives (Smith et al., 2015), yet less than one-fourth of all sexual assaults are reported (DOJ Office of Justice Programs, 2017), it is likely that sexual violence reported to police when perpetrated by police is even more underreported.

With few notable exceptions, research specifically on PSV has been confined to the investigation of police forces and content analyses of high-profile sexual assault cases, examining neither lived experience, nor structural causes and consequences in this context. Furthermore, with sexual violence disproportionately impacting women, and police violence largely affecting people of color, women of color stand at the nexus of those most vulnerable to PSV. More specifically, women of color in New York City—the city with the largest police force—have become increasingly subject to police encounters in their neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, welfare offices, and immigration facilities (INCITE!, 2016). To date, however, PSV represents a form of state-sanctioned violence that has been understudied, as scholarship attending to experiences of police misconduct focuses primarily on men of color (Ritchie, 2017).

To remedy this breach in research, this study seeks to answer the following questions: How (and how often) are New Yorkers, particularly women of color, experiencing PSV? What psychosocial and institutional factors within police forces allow its perpetration? What is the role of police sexual violence in structurally and ideologically reinforcing racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy? And lastly, what is its impact on survivors, and how can their everyday modes of resistance strengthen existing movements for racial and gender justice? To answer these questions, this study utilizes a multi-method, interdisciplinary approach to examine the ways in which New Yorkers understand, embody, and resist instances of police sexual violence, while situating PSV within a historically persistent racialized and gendered hierarchy of humanity that continuously informs related psychosocial, institutional, ideological, and structural processes. In partnership with a citywide coalition of community organizations interested in investigating PSV, this study utilizes 1) a survey that captures the breadth and depth of both incidents and consequences of PSV across New York City, as well as the ways in which different types of sexual violence potentially compound; 2) in-depth interviews that delve more deeply into lived experience and modes of resistance employed by survivors in this context; and 3) an analysis of the court documents and media coverage of the high-profile case of Anna Chambers, a young woman who was raped and sexually assaulted by two NYPD officers in 2017, just one month before the #MeToo movement virally erupted.

Building on previous research I have conducted formulating the theoretical framework of cumulative dehumanization (Bustamante, Jashnani & Stoudt, 2018), this project will draw from interdisciplinary scholarship on embodiment and affect to examine the racialized body as a site of both knowledge production (Roberts, 2013) and paradoxical space (McKittrick, 2006). Furthermore, this work will theoretically situate this form of state-sanctioned sexual violence within racial capitalism (Gilmore, 2016; Robinson, 1983) and heteropatriarchy (Harris, 2011) to make sense of the current ways in which PSV is informed by psychological processes of sexual objectification and misogyny (Manne, 2018), while serving to police race, class, gender, and sexuality more broadly (Dubrofsky & Magnet, 2015). It is my hope that this project will not only shed light on this daily injustice affecting New Yorkers, but also generate knowledge on how movements for resistance can be further advanced.

With support from the Digital Connect New York Fellowship, I have spent the summer researching the intersectional and interdisciplinary terrain of sexual violence to map out a thorough understanding of how it gets perpetrated structurally, ideologically, institutionally, and interpersonally. Dispelling the myth that sexual violence is perpetrated by extraordinary “bad apples” within police forces, I began by situating police sexual violence within the landscapes of misogyny and dehumanization. I first examined the widespread ideological, interpersonal, and psychological causes of sexual violence, stemming from aggrieved entitlement to women’s attention, bodies, and labor; the desire to conform to ideals of normative masculinity, of which sexual aggression is key; and the widespread sexual objectification of women. I then examined how the cultural and institutional forces promoting authoritarianism and hegemonic masculine bonding within the NYPD exacerbate these causes of sexual violence.

Next, I situated police sexual violence within the structural origins of racialized sexual violence, illuminating the foundational rape of Native and Black women used during colonization and slavery to establish the settler state within racial capitalism. Within a global political economic system built on sexual violence, I subsequently examined state uses of sexual violence in the U.S. in practice, rhetoric, and law to fortify white supremacy and heteropatriarchy thereafter. Throughout history, women of color have routinely been targets of state-sanctioned sexual violence, while a racialized rhetoric of rape has been used to propel alternative state agendas from war and colonial conquest abroad, to systemic segregation and widespread criminalization at home.

Within this history, I have located the origins of policing as rooted in racialized and gendered ideologies that justify the taking of both lands and bodies. More specifically, I have highlighted a history of state-sanctioned sexual violence within the American carceral state, perpetrated by a range of state actors—from early police patrols in 19th century New York City, to convict lessees in the South during Jim Crow, and finally to prison guards and police officers in the various carceral institutions that now comprise today’s expanded carceral state. In NYC today, we see the same racialized and gendered dehumanizing logics at work, undergirding the gender- and race-based profiling that has led to women of color becoming the nation’s fastest growing jail and prison population. As a result, women of color are now increasingly vulnerable to PSV in a range of institutions and criminalized contexts.

Amid the rise of carceral feminism in recent decades, feminist goals have been coopted by white supremacist and neoliberal agendas to expand criminalization in ways that continue to disproportionately target people of color, while keeping the root causes of sexual violence intact. Understanding this history of state-sanctioned sexual violence, alongside the psychosocial analysis of how sexual violence gets perpetrated broadly, has already proven to be invaluable for thinking through the next phase of my dissertation research. I aim to use this literature review to inform analysis of the subsequent data to be collected, and to aid in fully contextualizing New Yorkers’ lived experiences and consequences of police sexual violence within local and global structures.

About the author: Param Ajmera