restorative justice

Restorative Justice & Rape Culture

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

A few months ago, a TED Talk began to circulate.

You’ve seen dozens of these on your newsfeed – inspiring videos of people discussing exciting new innovations, lifestyle hacks, or personal experiences. However, this one was unique in the controversy it caused. It featured a rape survivor speaking out about her experience – with her rapist by her side.

Many people jumped to conclusions. The comments sections wherever this video circulated were filled with questions – why isn’t that man in jail? Why is he getting publicity and a book deal out of this? How could she stand next to the man who did this? Does she have Stockholm Syndrome?

These questions, while well-intentioned, are born out of a pervasive rape myth: that there is a “right” or “wrong” way for a victim to respond to their assault.

In order for someone to be a “good” victim or a believable victim, we expect certain things of them, from the way they look, to the way the assault happens, to the way they handle the aftermath. They’re young and pretty, probably a white woman. The person who assaulted them breaks into their room or drags them into an alley. The victim is covered in defensive wounds and immediately calls the police and gets a rape examination done.

Most people acknowledge that the reality is almost always more complicated, and that it’s an insidious facet of rape culture to demand that victims of assault fit into this mold in order to gain sympathy. Many of us consider this demand unacceptable.

And while some may be sympathetic to victims of assault who are not believed by the police or who were never able to safely approach them in the first places, many people fall woefully short of honoring the autonomy of victims of assault when it comes to alternative options.

Whether that means disagreeing with them publicly outing their attacker, or being upset when they confront their rapist, we tend to immediately default back to the well, he should be in jail paradigm.

Because the truth is: our preconceived biases about rape culture, the prison industrial complex, and the legal system make us extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a victim interacting with their attacker.

Which is why when people hear the term restorative justice – which is a practice often based on confrontation or interaction – they tend to react negatively. But restorative justice is a powerful concept that is worth a second look from feminists.

What is restorative justice and why do we need it?

Restorative justice is a system of accountability that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation. On a broad level, this has been adopted as a sort of “alternative justice” program in some prisons and legal arenas. On a more intimate level, restorative justice can involve a personal confrontation or a community cooperation effort. It’s been gaining a lot of traction in prison abolitionist circles as an effective alternative to prison sentences, or a method of community policing, particularly among feminists who (rightfully) point out that prisons inherently cannot help us end rape culture.

No matter where it’s being practiced, the thesis remains the same: restorative justice attempts to repair damage and trauma caused by a particular policy or behavior by involving the people that were party to the act in question. Restorative justice isn’t necessarily limited to being practiced in instances of rape, assault, or harassment – it has broader implications for governments or organizations that have oppressed certain populations and are seeking an opportunity to pay reparations, or for communities looking for a collaborative approach to reducing violent crime. Restorative justice has many different forms, but it should generally always involve three things: the presence of the affected individual(s), the presence of the perpetrator, the identification and acknowledgement of the act that caused harm, and the willingness to collaborate.

To specifically analyze how restorative justice operates in rape culture, one must imagine potential scenarios that victims of assault or harassment may find themselves in, where restorative justice would be useful and attractive.

For example – a trans woman who faced transmisogynistic comments and sexual harassment from her coworker. She may, rightfully, be afraid of starting an HR investigation, or may be genuinely interested in educating the perpetrator while gaining a sense of empowerment and a rightful apology. Restorative justice could, in this instance, materialize as her boss or other coworkers sitting with her and discussing the incident with the perpetrator. The woman and the other stakeholders could explain the harm that was done, the perpetrator could acknowledge the harm and apologize with a genuine understanding of why it was unacceptable, and could make a plan to hold themselves accountable and prevent future incidents.

Another example. A rape victim may have spoken publicly about her ordeal and her rapist. She never officially reported the incident, but she did call out the behavior in her social group, leading to a general understanding and people believing her. Months or years later, she may still feel as though she never got full accountability or closure. She may be interested in restorative justice – a path for her to confront her attacker, get genuine accountability and closure, and along the way, make the world a safer place.

These are basic examples of scenarios where people may consider restorative justice to be an intriguing, attractive, healthy option. However, it doesn’t come without its downfalls – and its risks.

What are some things to be wary of when supporting restorative justice?

First and foremost, we must never forget that restorative justice, like other avenues of accountability, is always the victim’s decision. People who are zealous in their enthusiasm of this avenue may forget that some survivors have no desire to confront their rapist or to see them go through a process where they suddenly “get” why what they did was wrong. Likewise, people who are zealous in their enthusiasm for legal punishment may forget that personal confrontation can bring closure, and many survivors have begun to question whether a harsh prison sentence actually brings them a sense of justice. It is always the decision of the survivor to engage in any avenue of justice, and our theoretical discussions must retain this principle.

A different risk is that the survivor and other participants may approach the perpetrator and not get the response they want. Even if they’re willing to discuss it at all, their response may be woefully inadequate for the needs of the community and the survivor. “I’m sorry” is not enough to erase trauma, nor is “I know what I did was wrong.” (These are words better suited for apologizing for stealing your roommate’s food – not for altering the course of somebody’s life) Perpetrators must be actually willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue, acknowledge what they did, and pay reparations to the person and the community they harmed.

Finding out that they aren’t willing to have that genuine dialogue can be extremely stressful for survivors who found the idea of confrontation attractive, but the fact is, if they aren’t willing to be realistic and to truly acknowledge the extent of their crimes, they cannot help you find closure – they can only harm you.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that engaging in a restorative justice avenue can, predictably, bring up triggering and upsetting memories. Some people may not be able to cope with that additional mental stress, and that must be respected.

Is this the future for dismantling rape culture?

There is no one answer to rape culture. While it is always an exciting thing to be able to expand the options available to survivors, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to accountability and healing. With restorative justice on the table, the potential for innovation is there – it’s up to us to honor the ideas and feelings of survivors as we go forward.