Sexual Policing—A Review of “The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification”

Fischer, Anne Gray. The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

Reviewed by DeAnza A. Cook

Making sense of systemic violence in modern American cities requires reckoning with sexual criminalization and its entangled carceral effects throughout this nation and beyond. Anne Gray Fischer’s much-anticipated The Streets Belong to Us bears witness to why meticulous eyes for teasing out sexist and racist forms of social control are urgently needed now. Urban state violence and interlocking power-based inequities have perennially robbed life-affirming and life-sustaining resources from targeted groups of people fighting to thrive in unequal societies. Fischer’s book unearths the violent history behind how.

From the dawning of Prohibition-era vice control crusades to the ascendance of the broken windows strategy for aggressive order maintenance, The Streets Belong to Us dissects an understudied punitive phenomenon in twentieth-century urban America: sexual policing. By chronicling the (re)construction of law enforcement practices nationwide through “the targeting and legal control of people’s bodies and their presumed sexual activities,” Fischer’s work ultimately demonstrates how sexual policing functioned as a foundational “engine” of American police power. Moreover, sexual policing strategies provided state-sponsored mechanisms for safeguarding urban capitalist growth—at the deadly expense of public safety for sexually profiled Black women and White women, as well as their families and communities.

Weaving together a national fabric of gendered perspectives on criminality and racialized law enforcement traditions, The Streets Belong to Us underscores, above all, why “women matter in the history of police power.” Fischer’s book features fascinating urban case studies, subaltern survival stories, as well as “archival fragments” gleaned from underused carceral state records across flagship metropolitan regions: mainly, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta. More importantly, she extends an unequivocally Black feminist invitation to scholars invested in teasing out a spectrum of sexual and intersectional police power dynamics through the lens of cisgender straight women’s lived experiences.

Each chapter in The Streets Belong to Us foregrounds the complicated nexus of anti-Black racism, intraracial classism, and White heterosexist normativity to expose the treacherous consequences of insidious sexual policing behaviors, including the (literally) “breathtaking power [of] urban police” over women’s bodies.[1] First and foremost, Fischer situates sexual policing’s violent history as an outgrowth of so-called Progressive era reform movements, which coincided with Jim Crow segregation and collided with postwar sexual liberalization. The first half of her book explores why nationwide relocations of red-light districts (notoriously saturated with commercialized sex and other police-involved illicit vices) to predominately Black neighborhoods induced the decriminalization of straight White women’s nonmarital sexual activities, while simultaneously compounding the criminalization of laboring and leisurely Black women who dared to venture ‘out of place’ into downtown districts. As a result, the hyper-policing of Black women fanned the flames of urban rebellions that erupted from the 1960s onward. Although, as Fischer stresses, the visibility of police violence against Black women and Black transwomen too often lingers in shadows behind their manly counterparts.

The second half of the book artfully portrays the (re)making of racialized and gendered structures of social control for the reformist purpose of cleansing modern American cities.[2] Urban police forces in Boston, Atlanta, and elsewhere, as chapters four and five illustrate, adopted aggressive order maintenance tactics and performed mass misdemeanor arrests beginning in the 1980s under a new brand of public order policing, dubbed broken windows. White and non-white police agents paved the way for gentrification in pursuit of urban economic redevelopment through armed removals of disorderly scapegoats and aggressive mass sweeps of undesirable people. Stark shifts in sexual surveillance and morals policing in the late-twentieth century ensnared Black women most of all. But sex workers, sexually profiled women, and anti-violence feminist activists, most notably Barbara Smith, Gloria Lockett, and Margaret Prescod, fiercely opposed punitive power-based logics endemic to sexual policing in particular and state violence against women in general.[3] Fischer’s concluding chapters examine feminist political clashes over divergent anti-violence campaigns following the broken windows strategy’s sensational introduction by American police scientists in 1982. Ongoing disagreements over “the protective value of law enforcement” (and lack thereof for all endangered women) spurred the ascendance of multiracial carceral feminist impulses, which in turn progressively resurrected Jim Crow era police counterinsurgency traditions leading up to the twenty-first century.[4] In essence, The Streets Belong to Us suggests that broken windows and derivative policing approaches succeeded in reinventing Prohibition-era urban order maintenance tactics and techniques during America’s mass incarceration age.

Andrew Ratto, “Black Trans Lives Matter” (2020), Wikimedia Commons.

Readers most intrigued by budding analytical possibilities for bridging interpretative gaps between American carceral histories from above and from below should consider The Streets Belong to Us a compelling playbook.[5] By nimbly escaping narrow fixations on national-versus-local dynamics, Fischer spotlights a kaleidoscopic, interwoven urban and federal landscape rooted in the perpetuation of sexual criminalization practices and crime control policymaking across distinct regional domains. Not only does she map out overlapping dimensions of law enforcement strategy-making between federal, state, and city governments, she also highlights crucial feedback loops among reigning authorities of all stripes who engaged in relentless quests to rescue American cities at the cost of human rights. Consequently, Fischer argues, evolving webs of ecosocial “discretionary morals policing” and geospatial regulation strategies effectively “recalibrated lethal social inequalities” steadily entrenched throughout the twentieth century for the most habitually vulnerable human beings among us.

Overall, Fischer’s dense yet delicate descriptions of the seductive weaponization of sex, power, and political economies of punishment in modern America make this monograph an essential entry point for any scholar concerned with sexual criminalization and its entanglements. On top of showcasing a robust synthesis of the most recent scholarship on African American women’s history and critical carceral studies, this book reverberates similar theories of change championed by present-day police and prison abolitionists, including Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie, among others mentioned in the book. The Streets Belong to Us clarifies why we can’t wait for piecemeal reformist law enforcement policies. Rather, Fischer insists, liberatory pathways through the tumultuous terrain of public safety must coordinate the dismantling of the “lifeblood” of American police power—discretionary morals laws.[6] Draining the swamp of sexual policing, in her view, necessitates the abandonment of “predatory and exploitative vision[s] of public order,” precisely because carceral power systematically swells from local discretionary authority and state-sanctioned violence work.[7]

On the other hand, readers in search of thorough examinations into the fraught and variegated inner-workings of urban police business and everyday law enforcement decision-making might find themselves wanting. After all, this book is decidedly a history of police powers and their structural effects across violence-stricken locations, rather than a history of police bureaucracies and their peculiar functions within or in-between urban landscapes. Future investigations of the diffusion of patriarchal and matriarchal forms of police work into adjacent governing structures and public-private spaces formally outside the legal purview of professional policing (e.g. social services, healthcare, housing, education, employment, non-profit industries, etc.) are still desperately needed to grasp the full extent of sexual policing’s mark on twentieth-century punitive governance.[8]

Nevertheless, Fischer’s work graciously leaves the front door open to forthcoming histories about Indigenous, Latina, and Asian women, as well as transgender, queer, and nonbinary folks and their ceaseless fight to transcend mere survival.[9] As the painstaking work of actualizing a truly free world moves onward, The Streets Belong to Us affirms that radical recommitments to people power, beyond the barrel of a loaded gun or a turnkey for a human cage, cannot be forsaken if we are to free all of us from the haunting sins of America’s past and present.[10]


DeAnza A. Cook is a History PhD Candidate at Harvard University. Building upon her undergraduate thesis on the intellectual history of broken windows policing, her dissertation traces the ascendance of proactive policing and experimental crime control in Greater Boston and beyond under the banner of “community, problem solving” at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Featured image (at top): “Women! Free our sisters,N.E. Women’s Liberation and Black Panther Party of Connecticut, 1969, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


[1] Fischer, p. 2. 

[2] Fischer, p. 13-14. Fischer firmly anchors this book in a Black feminist analytic framework that echoes earlier interventions posed by Patricia Hill Collins, Sarah Haley, Talitha LeFlouria, Cheryl Hicks, Margot Canaday, Cathy Cohen, and Dorothy Roberts, among many others. Her work accentuates a Black feminist genealogical throughline across the twentieth century, which encompasses a wide-range of national and neighborhood women activists from Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Angela Davis to Barbara Smith, Gloria Lockett, and Margaret Prescod.

[3] Fischer, p. 175, 185, 209.

[4] Fischer, p. 17.

[5] See also, Simon Balto, “The Carceral State’s Origins, from Above and Below,” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/683346/pdf.

and Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674979826.

[6] Fischer, p. 208.

[7] Fischer, p. 208. See also, Micol Seigel, Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police, https://www.dukeupress.edu/violence-work.

[8] See also, Marisol LeBrón, Policing Life and Death, https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520300170/policing-life-and-death.

[9] Fischer, p. 7. See also, Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/622408/we-want-to-do-more-than-survive-by-bettina-love/.

[10] Fischer, p. 6. Fischer highlights heteropatriarchy and settler colonialism, as well as systemic racism and predatory capitalism, as “founding violences” in American history, and she emphasizes that “we can’t fully understand modern police power without reckoning with gender and sexuality as an integral link binding these foundational forms of violence together.” Indeed, critical analyses of American police power must contend with crucial intersections between race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to advance new directions in carceral state studies, American political development, and social movement histories in the twenty-first century.

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