A retributive system is far from the most desirable for people who have experienced sexual misconductFACEBOOK/LOUDANDCLEAR

Content Note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and institutional abuse.

In Christine Blasey Ford’s opening remarks at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2018, in which she recounted her alleged sexual assault from decades before, she stated with visible distress that, “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me.”

Though in many ways far from typical in platform and publicity, Ford’s experiences at the hearing resonated, and continue to resonate, with many victim-survivors who push for justice through the criminal justice system.

Too often, we interpret ‘justice’ for victim-survivors of sexual violence in terms of punitive legal outcomes for perpetrators; we see it as a linear and sequential process which can be quantified – in Dianne Martin’s words, by equating “recognition of harm with length of prison sentence.” We prioritise this over interrogating the real needs and desires of those who have been assaulted. This often forces them to endure further, secondary abuse to achieve limited and often undesirable consequences that fail to acknowledge that survivor experiences do not conform to any fixed paradigm.

“Perpetrator-centred ‘justice’ ... depicts re-traumatisation and institutional abuse as the ‘civic duty’ of victim-survivors.”

Ford’s experiences at Kavanaugh’s hearing reflected this predominantly perpetrator-centred ‘justice’, which depicts re-traumatisation and institutional abuse as the ‘civic duty’ of victim-survivors yet generally has a negligible impact on its mostly male perpetrators. As a landmark court case mounted against the Crown Prosecution Service by the Centre for Women’s Justice and the End Violence Against Women coalition has highlighted, people who attempt to pursue legal justice against their rapist endure victim-blaming, intrusive data violations and systemic mismanagement in a system built to place the burden of proof on potential victims, whilst perpetrators escape mostly unscathed.

It hardly needs to be recalled that legal outcomes for survivors are almost invariably insufficient and re-traumatising. Despite police recording more alleged rapes almost year upon year, the Crown Prosecution Service has charged, prosecuted and convicted progressively fewer cases. Where alleged rapes increased 9% in the year to March 2019, prosecutions and convictions declined by 33% and 27% respectively. This amounts to three convictions for every 100 rape cases recorded within the time period, something which Dame Vera Baird, the Victim’s Commissioner for England, interpreted as an effective “decriminalisation of rape.”

Even aside from the flagrant institutional abuse and misconduct victim-survivors encounter when pursuing legal outcomes, it is clear that a retributive system is far from the most desirable outcome for people who have experienced sexual misconduct. The conventional criminal justice system systematically re-traumatises victims of assault by continuing to deprive them of their subjecthood and centering the perpetrator in proceedings.

Psychologist Judith Herman once stated: “if one set out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of traumatic stress it would look very much like a court of law.” This is particularly pertinent to cases of sexual misconduct, where rigid cross-examinations often serve to inflict secondary trauma on survivors, and the often gendered stigmatisation of sexual assault survivors is frequently evoked as a persuasive device for juries. The system has also been proven to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD in survivors, who are often maligned and accused of lying due to the syndrome’s association with memory loss and exaggerated feelings of self-doubt.

“Survivors of sexual violence have diverse and vibrant conceptions of what should constitute justice.”

Yet surveys have shown that survivors of sexual violence have diverse and vibrant conceptions of what should constitute justice; they have a unique list of needs that rarely correspond with the interests of a criminal system. While some speak of existing system reform, bringing survivors into the centre rather than the periphery, most see justice as something which occurs outside of the criminal justice system.

Many reference the advantages of restorative justice, a system which “brings those who have harmed, their victims, and affected communities into processes that repair harm and rebuild relationships.” Focusing on creating a dialogue and a forum for empowerment not only between the victim-survivor and the offender, but also within the wider community, it focuses on addressing the specific needs of those affected by the crime whilst also allowing for perpetrators to be re-educated.

This has proven to be particularly efficient in cases where the perpetrators themselves were victims of repressed trauma due to childhood sexual abuse, as well as where the perpetrator and victim of the abuse are family members, so that the person affected might be less likely to want to pursue punitive judicial outcomes. By contrast, the criminal justice system has been criticised for its perceived perpetuation of sexual abuse; the number of prisoners being sexually assaulted by fellow inmates has trebled since 2010.

“Support ... could validate the harm dealt to them by a society that too often turns a blind eye to, or vilifies, those who experience assault.”

Many of those who have experienced sexual misconduct also identified a material response by the government as an ideal form of justice. This would provide recompense to victims by helping them to rebuild their lives, often through economic means. Victim-survivors are often deprived of stable housing, employment and health by their attackers; their status as citizens is also challenged. Material, economic and practical support, helping victims to access a stable income and physical and mental health provision, could validate the harms dealt to them by a society that too often turns a blind eye to, or vilifies, those who experience assault.

More general and universal measures to encourage economic equality such as a Universal Basic Income would also ensure that those trapped in abusive domestic relationships would have the financial independence to escape them; according to Women’s Aid, one in five female domestic violence victims said that they could not leave their abusive relationships because they had no money of their own.

The most commonly recurring theme in survivors’ depictions of an ideal ‘justice’ is a community-centred response, which focuses on increased funding for survivor support services as well as preventative education and specific action against gender-based discrimination and economic disparities. Most importantly, the conditions should be met for victim-survivors to feel recognised and centred, and for perpetrators to take responsibility, and to respond to the demands of the recovery process in more diverse and nuanced ways than the criminal justice system often allows.


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As Clare McGlynn and Nicole Westmarland remark in their paper on Kaleidoscopic Justice: “sexual violence is about treating someone as a means to an end: justice is about reaffirming their status as a subject - as an end in itself.” While it is important to give attention to ensuring that criminal justice and reporting systems are accessible to survivors and sensitive to their needs, we can only move towards victim-centred justice when we acknowledge that such a system needs to be far from monolithic.

People who experience sexual assault are deprived of agency over their lives and experiences. It is our job to restore their agency over their recovery.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, support resources are provided below:

The University Counselling Service’s Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor page, which provides free and confidential pastoral support for students

The University guide for students who have experienced serious incidents including sexual violence, harassment or other forms of misconduct

The University’s list of external support for students who have experienced sexual misconduct