Rape is a crime which causes significant harm, often lifelong trauma, and yet so few survivors obtain justice. The opportunities to do so are restrictive. You can report the crime to the police, but you are unlikely to see justice served in that way. A sense of justice can assist survivors to heal, lessening that trauma. So why haven’t we developed other pathways for survivors to seek justice?
Reporting your rape to the police – in any jurisdiction – takes significant courage. It may be easier in a time of crisis, if emergency services are called in the immediate aftermath of an assault. But most rapes aren’t like that – they are committed by someone you know, someone you trust, maybe even someone you love. You may have been lulled into a false sense of security, may have had too much to drink, may have had limited ways to keep yourself safe. You may worry that people will blame you for what happened, or not believe you. This is not an unusual way to feel, as our social environments are all too often conducive to sexual abuse.
Our difficulties in addressing abuse and abusers are reflected in the enduring nature of rape myths – generally false assumptions about how, when and to whom rape occurs, which have the effect of denying offences have happened, or placing blame for them onto their victims. The pervasive and persuasive nature of rape myths creates a challenge for survivors who experience sexual abuse which does not fit within these narrow ideals of circumstance and victim behaviour. It also creates challenges for others around the survivor to understand and support them.
Sexual abuse remains shrouded in shame, secrecy and myth, and this makes it hard for survivors to speak out, and even harder to access justice. In too many cases, abuse is a life-changing experience. Yet in England and Wales, just 1% of reported rapes were successfully prosecuted in the year to March 2020. The rate of prosecutions has then halved because of the pandemic. So, it is no wonder that survivors are reporting so little faith in the justice system.
Addressing this is critical: reporting a rape to the police should lead to better outcomes for more survivors than this. However good this route becomes, though, it will never be able to fulfil the justice needs of all survivors, and there will still be many unable, or unwilling, to access the criminal justice system.
So, how else can we expand the options available to you to gain a sense of justice if you are raped? We can widen the non-judicial options. This may seem counter-intuitive, but our understanding of what justice is, and what survivors’ justice needs are, is remarkably well developed. Survivors wish to be heard, and they wish to be taken seriously. They want to be supported by those people closest to them, and many want to see their abuser held to account. This does not need to occur in a courtroom. It can be provided through a restorative justice process.
Restorative justice is not just a different path through the criminal justice system, and it is not just for juvenile offenders or those committing first offences. Indeed, many of the most impactful processes are held after the most serious crimes – after murder, for example, or after rape. This means meeting, in a controlled environment, facilitated by a knowledgeable practitioner, to discuss the harm that has been caused, and what restoration may be possible. For some, an apology may be forthcoming. For others, just telling their abuser about the damage they have caused is enough to feel a sense of justice.
Does it have to be with the abuser? An abuser is solely responsible for sexual abuse, yet the harm reported by survivors is also caused by others. What about the mother who believed her partner rather than her daughter? The friend who gossiped about the survivor, rather than recognised their victimisation? Those working closely with survivors will recognise that harm is not only caused by rapists, but also by those other people around the abuser who enable the abuse to occur. The role of other people in sexual abuse is more complicated than as merely witnesses or bystanders to the abuse. People interact with both the survivor and the abuser in such a way that they can either protect the survivor, or facilitate the abuser. That is, they may safeguard the victim, or enable the abuse. They may fail to protect, fail to believe or fail to support victims, and in doing so, they are enablers. They create social environments indoctrinated in the shame, secrecy and myth surrounding sexual abuse; they refract and enhance the power of manipulative abusers, and they increase the victimisation, the isolation and the harm caused to the survivor.
So, could restorative justice processes be conducted with those people who enabled abuse, or amplified the harm caused by the abuse, as well as, or instead of the abuser? My research shows that restorative justice processes with enablers is theoretically and conceptually possible, and that there is a desire from some survivors to address their justice needs in this way. Survivors are likely to feel that they have been heard, that they have had some influence over the process, and that the harm caused by the abuse has been recognised. It may also promote pro-social behaviour in their enablers, reducing the likelihood of further harm being caused. In doing so, it would begin to address the social environments that are all too often conducive to sexual abuse. The true power of restorative justice processes may be in their ability to recognise and redress harm which has been caused but which can never be addressed by the criminal justice system. And the options available to those who are raped would no longer be so limited.
Angela Marinari is a serving police officer, currently working for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. She has a doctorate in Criminal Justice, which was awarded in July 2018 by University of Portsmouth.
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