Since I am still receiving e-mails from people who are incensed that I would even associate the words “restorative justice” with rape, I have decided that there is a great need for me to continue to address these topics on this blog.
Let me begin with a few thoughts about what restorative justice (RJ) is and what it is not:
1. RJ is not a “free pass.” If it is implemented correctly, then it is a process through which participants can create some form of accountability for harm that has been caused.
2. RJ should be a CHOICE. Participants must always engage VOLUNTARILY. No one should be mandated to be part of an RJ process. If you are, then it is NOT RJ but coercion.
3. RJ is not a panacea or a cure-all; it is an approach that can open up the lines of communication.
4. RJ is not free of the isms and power dynamics that create inequality in our societies. This is linked to my point about it not being a panacea. Participants must be checked for their oppressive acts when those manifest themselves in an RJ process.
Next, I have a couple of questions for those who claim to be working in the anti-rape field and insist that RJ puts survivors “lives at risk.” What is the percentage of sexual assaults that are reported to the police? The correct answer is 54%. That means that 46% of rape victims DO NOT report to law enforcement and the younger you are when you are assaulted the LESS LIKELY you are to report to the cops. What percentage of rapists do you think will ever spend a day in prison? The answer is 3%. You read that correctly… 97% of rapists will NEVER spend a day in prison. So the reality is that just over half of victims of sexual assault turn to the criminal legal system in the first place and most rapists will not go to prison. So a huge chunk of survivors do not turn to law enforcement for whatever reasons and the vast majority of rapists are not behind bars. If your goal is to end rape through a criminal legal process then I would say that based on the numbers, the strategy has already failed. So why such vehement resistance to other ways for rape survivors to seek accountability for the harm that we have experienced? What is at the root of the anger?
One person who e-mailed me suggested that she prioritizes the “safety” of survivors of rape and that RJ is inherently unsafe. This is a canard. The world is an unsafe place. If you are working with survivors of rape and you are promising them “safety” through a criminal legal process then you are actually doing more harm than any RJ process could ever do. We know for a fact that no one can assure anyone of “safety” in any process. We can only promise to walk with a survivor through her/his healing process for as long as we can.
I care most about rape survivors. I put the highest value on our lives and I prioritize our healing. The current criminal legal system focus on addressing rape is, I repeat, a FAILURE. Those who are working in the field of sexual assault prevention and intervention (who are honest with themselves) know that this is true. So we have a choice… We can keep going in the direction that we have been or we can prioritize the desires and needs of many rape survivors and develop models for seeking accountability for the harm experienced and also focus on healing. This is what I choose to do.
In the interest of advancing that conversation, I want to highlight some examples of survivors who have confronted their rapists in some form. The following is an excerpt from the experience of a survivor named Joanne Nodding:
When Joanne Nodding met the man who raped her, the first thing she noticed, she says, was how scared he was. “He thought I was going to be angry,” she says, “he was expecting me to shout and scream and tell him that I hated him. But if I had [been uncontrollably angry] they wouldn’t have allowed me to meet him.”
Instead she told the man, who cannot be named, how she had felt during the attack, and how it had affected her family. She explained that she had been terrified, while he was raping her, that he was going to kill her.
“That had a really big impact on him,” she says. “He said ‘sorry’, and I did feel like it was a genuine ‘sorry’.”
Nodding had faced her rapist in court (which as I mentioned earlier is RARE) but “hadn’t had the opportunity to tell him how he’d made me feel.” In particular, she was prompted to participate in a restorative conference by the judge’s comment to the rapist that he had “ruined this woman’s life” which, unintentionally, shifted power back to her attacker. During the meeting, Nodding explained the impact of the abuse: `He heard it from me that day, what he’d done to me, not from someone else saying how I might feel.’ Nodding narrates her story in the following video. I hope that you will take time to listen.
In the video, Nodding comments that she felt a sense of “closure” after meeting with her rapist. This is of course just one example and survivors’ experiences will vary. Additionally, RJ is not for everyone and that it OK. But I think that it is imperative to lift up these examples so that we are aware that they exist. I will feature stories about how survivors of rape and sexual assault are engaging restorative justice practices in their lives over the next few weeks. I think that it is important that those of us who care about issues of violence remove the ceiling from our brains and overcome our fears. Much of the criticisms that I hear about the possibilities of employing restorative and transformative justice are not based on any actual models but instead on a misunderstanding of both concepts and on a dearth of actual examples. We cannot be afraid to develop and engage alternative models for seeking accountability when it is clear that our current models are so wanting.