[blogathon] Restorative Justice for Sexual Assault

This is the eighth and last post in my SSA blogathon. It was requested by a reader. Don’t forget to donate!

[Content note: sexual assault]

Restorative justice is a word you sometimes hear in discussions about how to reform our criminal justice system. It refers to “an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender.” As you can see, it would probably look quite different from the system we have now.

Someone asked me to write about what restorative justice might look like from the perspective of a rape survivor. To be clear, I am not a survivor of rape, although I am a survivor of sexual assault. In any case, I can only speak for myself.

But when I think about justice, this is what comes to mind.

I would want a perpetrator of sexual assault to have to learn about the roots of what they did. It’s not as simple is “Sexual assault is bad, don’t sexually assault people.” I would want them to understand rape culture. I would want them to understand all of the factors that might have contributed to their decision (because, yes, it was their decision) to sexually assault someone. I would want them to understand that their socialization has prepared them to become a person who sexually assaults people, but that this can be undone.

I would want the perpetrator to listen to the survivor talk about what they want through (if the survivor is comfortable). This doesn’t need to be a face-to-face conversation, of course, and I don’t think that many survivors would be willing for it to be. It could be an audio- or video-taped recording. It could even be a written account.

If prison is involved, I would want the prison to be humane. Regardless of whether or not we switch to a system of restorative justice, prison violence (including rape) must be addressed. This isn’t (just) because I’m concerned for the welfare of prisoners; it’s also because violent environments are much more likely to create violent individuals. For both selfish and altruistic reasons, I want perpetrators to serve their sentences feeling healthy and safe.

I would want the perpetrator to receive help with integrating back into their community afterwards–with finding a job, getting a place to live, and so on. Again, this is not because I think they “deserve” help. This is not about what they do and do not deserve. This is about what will make them the least likely to offend again.

But enough about the perpetrator. What about the survivor?

I think it goes without saying that in a system of restorative justice, there will be no victim blaming. The past “behavior” of a victim should have no bearing on the outcome of a trial. Not even if they had been sexually “promiscuous” (whatever that even means) in the past. Not even if they are a sex worker. Not even if they have committed crimes. Not even if they are an undocumented immigrant. Nothing makes someone deserving of sexual assault, and nothing makes it not worthwhile to pursue justice following an assault.

In a system of restorative justice, a survivor should not have to pursue any legal action that they don’t want to pursue. If a survivor doesn’t want to testify, they shouldn’t have to. That’s what it would mean to prioritize the needs of the survivor over our desire to punish the perpetrator.

Hopefully, in a system that focuses on reforming the perpetrator rather than punishing them, community members would be much less likely to blame the survivor for “ruining” the perpetrator’s life–which, tragically, often happens now when survivors of sexual assault speak out. But in any case, a system of restorative justice would also help community members support and affirm the survivor. Friends and family of the survivor would learn–both directly from the survivor and in general–what sorts of challenges survivors of sexual assault may face in dealing with the aftermath of their trauma. Rather than blaming the survivor for their feelings and expecting them to “get over it,” community members would learn how to help them cope.

Of course, this is all probably incredibly naive and the cultural shifts it would require are immense. But that’s a bit of what it would look like for this survivor of sexual assault.


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[blogathon] Restorative Justice for Sexual Assault

21 thoughts on “[blogathon] Restorative Justice for Sexual Assault

      1. Seriously. When my father was killed in an accident, when I was 15, I wrote a letter to the man who was charged with negligent homicide in the matter. Technically, he was guilty, which I admitted in the letter, but I said that if the wishes of the victim mean anything to the court, they’d consider leniency, as the man was a decent person, no previous record, who’d just done something grievously stupid, which had cost someone their life. Putting him in prison would help no one. His family would lose their breadwinner, as we’d lost ours, and they’d all be worse off. I wasn’t loving being dadless so much that I wanted to wish it on someone else.

        People seemed to think it was weird, but it seemed normal enough to me at the time, and still does. I wouldn’t want my dad to go to jail for a couple of years for a negligent homicide like that (it wasn’t even a car accident, just a stupid mistake – people make those, i certainly do). For me, to think of the effect on the attacker’s family, in my own rape cases, would definitely have played a part in any approach to justice I took, had this ever been on offer (neither were ever charged).

          1. yeah, they gave him a couple of years’ probation, which seemed good to me. I think it was knowing that he had three daughters, two of them almost my age at the time (I had just turned 15). The night it happened, I stayed in the house next door to them, and heard them (the three girls) up well past midnight, talking about it, and what would happen to their dad.

            And I just couldn’t imagine putting them through what I was feeling, y’know? I didn’t see as it would make me feel any better, to know someone else is suffering too. The priest my grandmother insisted i see was very much more the retributive-justice type, full of bible verses about how god was going to punish him and so on and so forth. Turned my stomach, honestly, probably was the final straw in making me a complete atheist.

        1. CatieCat, I’ve never been raped, only assaulted, so I’m just trying to learn by asking questions here.

          I understand your feelings about not wanting to deprive another family of their father even though you were deprived of yours through a stupid, human mistake.

          But rape is not a stupid human “mistake.” One does not accidentally rape someone. I’ve had a few friends and family members who I know were raped. Only one of those rapists ever saw jail time, and he did a year for sexual assault. Since my friend was raped while on a date with this guy, the prosecutors didn’t think they could successfully prosecute a rape charge.

          Every story I hear like this, I always think “That’s not enough.” And I know that’s not for me to decide, and it goes straight back to the punitive system that Miri’s post is in direct contrast to.

          Before Miri’s suggestions will even work, society needs to understand what rape is. This isn’t the case. Not yet.

          1. Oh – you’re totally right, and I don’t mean in any way to equate the two, so thanks for letting me know I had done so. I’m sorry for that.

            In fact, I’ve been assaulted three different times myself. (content note: sexual assault of minor)

            When I was 10, I was serially assaulted by a bus driver. At 21, attacked in a car by a date driving me home. At 26, attacked on the street. In the latter two cases, in both cases I successfully defended myself physically (thank you military training!). In none of the cases did I bring it to the police, as I had reason to fear (given the physical condition of my would-be attackers, and my being a trans woman, and it being 1987 when i was 21) that the police would charge me and not them.

            (end content note)

            So I really do get it, and I’m really sorry I gave the impression I meant to equate my father’s death with sexual assault of any kind – thanks again for bringing it up.

          2. I think people with mental disabilities can rape on accident.

            Also, a friend of mine supposedly raped another friend of mine on accident. He could have avoided it by getting verbal consent, but he was .. not aware that he should do that? Anyway, she forgave him, so I did too.

          3. @rilian

            In no way am I trying to second-guess your friend (the one who was raped), but seriously – what do you mean by “supposedly raped”?

            I get it. Rapists are not all monsters, shadowy strange and unknown figures in our lives. Quite the contrary – most of the time they’re people we know and trust. But minimizing rape just because the rapist is someone we like isn’t helping our society understand what rape is, and how to effectively stop it.

          4. mythbri:

            No, no, he definitely raped her. He supposedly did it on accident. That is to say, he claimed that he had no idea she didn’t want it, and he said it was “just a misunderstanding”. The fact that she forgave him makes me find this somewhat plausible. I don’t know.

          5. rilian, thanks for clarifying.

            I still don’t buy the fact that it is possible to “accidentally” rape someone. As far as people with mental disabilities go, that’s something to think about, sure – but it’s not the case for a vast majority of rapes. And even then, it’s a crime committed with diminished capacity, so it’s obviously not going to be (or at least, shouldn’t be) treated the same as a competent person raping someone else.

            I don’t know your friend. But I assume that he gets along okay in day-to-day life. I assume he is a fairly reasonable person. I don’t think that consent is hard, and I think it’s reasonable to hold him to that standard. Don’t you? Whether or not his victim forgave him doesn’t erase what he did, and of course she absolutely gets to decide what actions, if any, she takes.

            Rapists will admit their crimes as long as the “r-word” isn’t used. They don’t think what they did was rape. It kind of sounds like your friend falls into this category.

          6. The witnesses to the Steubenville rape didn’t know that what they were seeing the rapists do to that young woman was rape. It’s possible that even the rapists themselves didn’t know that what they were doing was rape.

            But they damn well knew that what they were doing was wrong. They went to great lengths to cover it up, to get their coach to help with the cover-up, and to intimidate the victim into silence.

            They knew.

  1. 2

    Restorative justice is, IMHO, more applicable to material issues than emotional or physical ones, and particularly difficult in sexual assault. The problem is often the nature of the assailant’s mind. They would likely be a sociopath, possibly a psychopath, but most certainly “empathy deficient”. Except in the event of anger, I don’t believe an empathetic person could continue an assault past the point where the other party becomes panicky and upset.

    Isn’t this the reason the military uses derogatory terms for enemies? To dehumanize them so one does not see a soldier on the other side as a member of a family, as a person who might love their cats or dog, have kids or be a kid. Because empathy would preclude me from killing.

    I get lust. I get desire. I even understand being assertive. I don’t get hurting people when you know you’re doing it.

  2. 3

    Why I did not and will not report:
    Though I don’t want him to do it again, not only do I think that reporting will not accomplish that, but I also have compassion for him as a person even while I hate him, and I think that if he did go to jail or anything, it would be a worse outcome, not just for him but for everyone.

  3. 4

    I had been in contact with him since, but today he sent me a message saying that he can’t be friends with me anymore because he still has feelings for me. I posted about this on facebook, and a friend of mine commented on the post, refering to him as a rapist. Then his sister messaged me, saying I was slandering him. I deleted the post. This is so unfair. Am I not allowed to say anything because it wasn’t confirmed by a “court”? My facebook wall is one of the places where I vent about things that are bothering me.
    I don’t know what to do. It was months ago, but I still see him sometimes in my mind, and what is he doing? He is still thinking that he “loves” me. Meanwhile I am trying to study for finals and I can’t stop thinking about this.
    Maybe I could forget it but I have physical pain still ….
    Man, I know this is a pretty stupid place to talk about this, but it’s like, I would post on facebook, but now I’m afraid of someone taking legal action against me for “slandering” him.

    1. 4.1

      That sounds really hard, rilian. If I may make a suggestion (and please ignore me if you don’t want advice), there is probably a sexual assault support centre somewhere nearby that you could call to talk about this kind of thing. it’s exactly what they’re there for, what they’re trained to do (I used to do frontline volunteering at a centre like this). You call, you don’t need to tell them your name, but you’ll need to give a phone number where they can call you back at. They won’t keep it when you’re off the phone, either.

      If you’re at college, the women’s centre (if there is one) may be able to help you, or any women’s studies teacher would probably know the local landscape as far as support networks. Planned Parenthood would know, if there’s one near you.

      You don’t have to be alone with this, if you don’t want to be, okay? And I hope you have a bettter night than your day has gone.

      Oh, and no way are they going to be able to sue you for saying that on your private wall. Lock it down so only a few people can read it, and don’t name names, if you’re feeling afraid about it. But no way, in the US, they’d be able to sue about that. And it’s very, very unlikely they’d be willing to pay the lawyer for what would be, even if somehow you catastrophically lost that case, a puny fine at worst. Don’t let them intimidate you about that.

      And good luck, from a fellow survivor.

    2. 4.2

      rilian, I second CatieCat’s suggestion to reach out to organizations and people that are trained to do exactly what you might need them to do – which is listen, and give advice.

      I don’t know what you’re going through specifically, but I do know what it’s like to be continually confronted by someone who has wronged you and caused you great pain. It is never an easy situation, and I wish you the best. Please do what you need to do to be safe – whether that’s physically or emotionally.

  4. 5

    I’d rather have my abuser (my father) have to pay for all my medical bills and associated costs (like occasionally having breakdowns that make me unable to accomplish anything, like, you know, work) than have him go to jail.

    I don’t care if he suffers. He does me no good if he suffers or if he does not. I care that I suffer. I care that I want a medication that has helped me get more than 5 hours of sleep, but isn’t covered by my insurance that thus costs $275, which I can’t afford. I care that I worry about where I will live. I worry that I sometimes can’t get out of bed. Nothing that anyone will do to him will change nay of this.

    I hate retributive justice. It leaves the victims stuck up shit creek but knowing that their abusers are stuffed in some other shit creek.

    Of course, neither will actually happen to my father, but I can dream.

  5. Pen

    I liked your article and I’ve been thinking quite a lot about these issues. One thing that makes me uncomfortable is that emphasizing the needs and feelings of the victim could result in the same crime being treated in a very different way for different perpetrators. I think in Europe we now have this system where the victims and their families speak in court with the avowed purpose of influencing the jury or judge. Maybe, depending on their presentation, the sentence for a same crime could get longer or shorter depending on how much the court empathises with the victim? Or even the likelihood of someone being found guilty or not could change? I think that’s disturbing.

  6. 7

    I agree with Eristae. It would be nice to see the victim’s medical and psychological needs and the costs thereof taken care of. They’re the victims, they shouldn’t have to suffer financially because of what someone else did to them.

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