Content warning: The following story discusses sexual harassment and abuse.
The kindest response that I can give to any person who sexually harassed me in the past is something along the lines of Toni Collette’s line in the iconic Hereditary dining room scene, “If you could’ve just said ‘I’m sorry’ or faced up to what happened, maybe then we could do something with this, but you can’t take responsibility for anything! So, now I can’t accept. And I can’t forgive.” I say kindest because I can imagine myself trying to charge at them on sight or refusing to meet them under any circumstances. While writing this, I am forced to confront the question of whether it gives me satisfaction to be the type of person who believed that ending rape culture suggests ending rapists. Will seeing the person who committed the crime punished be enough to relieve me of the trauma and hurt I was forced to endure?
As you might have guessed, I have yet to (and I’m not fully convinced that I should) come to terms with the fact that we live in a world where compromise often predates genuine change, especially when it concerns issues such as sexual violence. While cases of sexual abuse have differences, what remains true for all of them is how survivors need to heal from it. If a good policy is made in consideration of what can provide the best outcome to the most number of people, then it must serve the purpose of targeting what allows it to exist in the first place. In order to do this, proponents of restorative justice believe that justice must be given to all parties.
Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice Sujatha Baliga explained the concept in an article for Vox. She says it’s a process that “invites truth-telling on all sides by replacing punitive approaches to wrongdoing in favor of collective healing and solutions.” The practitioner shares that her work begins with asking what survivors want from meeting with the person who harmed them.
She says, “While their answers vary, in sexual violence cases there is a common thread—they want to hear the person who assaulted them say, ‘You’re telling the truth. I did that to you. It’s my fault, not yours.’ They often want this admission to happen in the presence of both of their families and friends. Most survivors are also looking for some indication that the person who harmed them truly understands what they’ve done and that they won’t do it again. Some request to never have to see that person again.”
You might be wondering why someone would choose restorative justice over conventional criminal justice. Jo-Anne Wemmers, a researcher at the International Centre for Comparative Criminology, writes that those who have suffered from crime often also deal with “secondary victimization” or unsupportive and judgemental reactions to their plight. The origin of the word victim is the Latin term victima which refers to a creature sacrificed in a religious rite.
Jan Van Dijk wrote in his critique of victimhood that the word victim assigns the person to a “social role of passivity and forgiveness.” In other words, it’s adoption has shaped how society began to treat them as scapegoats. The #HijaAko movement that gained traction in the past month allowed a number of women to share their own experiences with victim-blaming and how they were denied justice.
Wemmers says that the word also “assumes that offenders must be punished and victims must be provided some form of reparation.” Citing Rainer Strobl, she adds, “The ideal victim is expected to deal with the offense by pressing charges and supporting the prosecution of the alleged offender. The ideal victim is expected to accept the costs (i.e. time) and trouble (embarrassing questioning) associated with meeting police and justice-system requirements, and to set aside their own interests.” Most of us have watched the persecution and ridicule thrown at a person who comes forward with their story, especially when it involves a well-liked personality. Not to mention how there are members of the police who commit rape.
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In restorative justice, the terms victim, offender and perpetrator are avoided because they define people by what happened and deny their ability to change. Instead, people use survivor and the person responsible. To give us an idea of how it looks like in practice, Baliga recounted a dialogue between two students that she facilitated. With the assurance that nothing they say will be used against them, Michael said that he wanted to “make it right.”
Before the meeting, Baliga let Sofia and Michael (not their real names) choose who they want to join them. She helped Sofia decide what she wanted to say and Michael with understanding the implications and root of what he did.
Baliga narrates, “The moment Michael entered the room, Sofia’s demeanor instantly changed from timid to emboldened, and a powerful dialogue ensued about the impact of the assault on Sofia’s life and on her family. Sofia told the group she had lost weight, was sleeping in her mother’s bed, woke up with nightmares, and had stopped going to school because of the rumors that she was lying for attention. As they worked through the details of the assault and its aftermath, Michael finally answered Sofia’s question about what he was thinking at the time of the assault. ‘I know you’re a good girl, and I thought all good girls have to fight a little the first time,’ he said. Michael’s sister gasped, and the room went silent for a little while. Even as the words came out of his own mouth, we could all see Michael realize how wrong this was.”
Published on VAWnet, an online resource library on gender-based violence, is a study by Mary Koss and Mary Achilles on restorative justice responses to sexual assault. They note the approach covers primary and secondary prevention measures against it. Primary prevention, pertaining to the prevention of sexual violence perpetration from the beginning, is forwarded by school programs that could bring persons responsible and survivors together. These programs address possible precursory acts of interpersonal violence such as bullying.
On the other hand, secondary prevention aims to avoid an increase of distress from survivors by empowering them to take action on their own behalf to avoid retraumatization. On the side of those who committed the act, secondary prevention helps keep them away from further violence by allowing them to hear the impact of their behavior and receive professional interventions, even in the absence of legal accountability. This would help them understand the cost of the act to the survivor and themselves and, in doing so, lower the possibility of similar behavior.
When I first read about restorative justice, I cried. For it to be effective, both parties must willingly participate and it must be done outside the jurisdiction of courts. I cried because I am not ready to forgive as a result of mere admission of wrongdoing. I’m not saying it is the only solution but it’s something that I feel I must learn to support.
Art by Tricia Guevara
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