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Getting back to center, rethinking justice

I’ve been reflecting recently on dissonant logic in some of our responses to sexual violence. Nearly every day that I spend in the movement, I hear folks talk about preserving evidence, increasing reporting, and holding people who commit sexual violence accountable through criminal and legal proceedings. I know that dedicated members of the anti-violence movement have spent abundant time and energy on improving systemic responses to sexual violence. In some cases, it took an unbelievable amount of effort to even criminalize some forms of sexual violence. I also know that some people experience the legal process as an important element of healing from sexual violence. It can provide closure or a sense of safety to know that an aggressor is held accountable for their act(s) of violence.

I also know that the process of reporting sexual violence or testifying in a trial can cause additional trauma. I know that researchers have gone so far as to call the criminal legal process a “second rape” (see Campbell et al., 2001). Having an advocate present can make a big difference, and many people will choose the criminal legal process despite difficulties and challenges. This choice is one made by the person who is surviving the violence. Advocates can provide information and support throughout the process of making this choice. There is a wealth of knowledge in our movement to help guide this process. All too often, it comes from difficult lessons-learned and trying experiences of cases gone terribly wrong.

My sense of dissonance comes in when I realize how much energy and effort is directed at a system that is only used by a fraction of the people who experience violence. It’s jarring to think that efforts and education for people surviving violence often revolve around the challenges, barriers, needs, and limitations of the criminal legal system, rather than through a thoughtful process driven by the victim’s needs and wants. An example of this: beginning education on the risks of using social media as a space for support and healing by discussing the ways it can disrupt a court case.

For many people, formal systems of responding to sexual violence are not an option. For some, the criminal legal system is an aggressor, rather than a protector. Holding people who perpetrate violence accountable by sending them into the corrections system often increases that person’s risk of experiencing sexual violence. It doesn’t make sense to me that our justice system attaches a positive outcome for a victim of violence to an increased risk of sexual violence. Our society often associates the healing journey for a victim of sexual violence on the findings in a legal proceeding. In reality, the healing process goes far beyond the courtroom and it is a lifelong journey.

As I struggle with some of these challenges, I am also searching for another way. I want to find a way that responding to violence can also be in line with the core values and mission of ending sexual violence and honoring the experiences of victims. As I try to work some of this out, I’ve been reading a lot on Community Accountability, Transformative Justice, and activist reflections on confronting violence and oppression outside the system. I might blog some more about it in the coming weeks as I try to figure it all out. This post has some pretty open challenges to the way our culture thinks about justice. It may even challenge the way you think about justice and response to sexual violence. Please respond to it by contributing to the discussion and sharing your reactions. I think we all need a healthy dose of mindful, intentional conversation to really be effective in our work.

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