Sexual Assault: A Restorative Justice Model
By Dr. Alissa Ackerman and Dr. Jill Levenson
The compelling and articulate statement made by the courageous survivor in the Stanford Rape case highlighted the failings of our criminal justice system. While many were shocked and enraged by the unusually short sentence of 6 months in jail, the vast majority of survivors never see the inside of a courtroom. Most assaults are never reported and of those that are, few cases are prosecuted. The trauma and suffering that survivors endure in silence is immense.
The Stanford survivor, like most victims of sexual assault or rape, wanted her perpetrator to apologize and display accountability for his actions. Our adversarial process silences many survivors, however, and therefore perpetrators rarely learn about the long-term effects of their actions, leaving little opportunity to cultivate empathy. Perpetrators are silenced as well, providing few chances for victims to hear the acknowledgement of harm they so desperately need and deserve.
We’d like to offer a different perspective – a change in the dialogue. We argue that the conversation should shift to harm reduction, promoting restorative and transformative justice. We offer an example of a restorative justice narrative in which a rape survivor and a SOTX group came face to face for a life-changing experience.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is concerned with violations of people and relationships, not statute definitions and sentencing guidelines. It acknowledges the harm caused to victims, their families and friends, and their communities. A key component of restorative justice frameworks is that offenders must accept responsibility for their actions. Equally important is the survivor’s narrative, as much of the healing process stems from telling one’s story and being heard. The process allows victims to be heard, to seek the acknowledgement of culpability they need, and for perpetrators to hear, firsthand, the personal narrative of suffering they have caused that permeates, like a ripple effect, across time and relationships.
Restorative justice practices have typically been employed for more minor offenses, but in recent years there has been a call to offer restorative justice practices for survivors of sexual violence in conjunction with criminal justice sanctions. For the last two decades there has been considerable debate on the topic, with some scholars raising concerns about safety, power, and accountability. Limited empirical evidence exists to inform our understanding of the effectiveness of restorative justice in sexual assault cases, but several courageous survivors have opened up publicly to talk about the profoundly positive impact it has had on their healing.
Restorative Justice Promotes Healing
Thirty-three years after her rape, Carmen Aguirre went to a prison to see the man who raped her. His name was John Horace Oughton. Known as “the paper bag rapist”, he was serving time for 14 offenses. Aguirre’s case was never prosecuted and Oughton knew this. At their meeting, Oughton refused to acknowledge Aguirre as his victim, but as she spoke her truth he became visibly agitated, shaking, breathing hard, and sweating. Finally, he admitted that her story rang a bell for him.
Aguirre did not expect this admission. She did not expect an apology or remorse, but he offered that he was working on learning compassion. In her parting words, Aguirre says, “John, I have spent many years pondering why you did what you did to me. And I know why. It was to teach me compassion. Even in the moment, during the actual attack, I could feel your pain. I could feel it” – I patted my heart – “right here. And so I want to thank you.”
Joanne Nodding endured a relentless fight to meet her rapist face-to-face. The meeting took place five years after the rape she thought would kill her. She believed that he thought she would be angry – that she would scream and yell at him. It was her rapist who was afraid and in fear at the meeting.
She told him about how much fear she was in while he raped her and she believes it had a big impact on him. He offered a genuine apology. Nodding told her rapist to his face that she forgave him and she asked him to forgive himself. She attributes a large part of her recovery to being able to have these conversations with her attacker.
Dr. Claire Chung made it known early in the investigation of her rape that she wanted to talk to her offender face to face, but because the case was still pending she could not. He ended up pleading guilty and so she was not given a chance to tell her story to the judge. She felt like a statistic that didn’t matter.
Finally, almost two years later she was able to meet with him and two mediators at the prison in which he was serving his sentence. After he was able to calm his anxiety about meeting Chung, the two talked for two hours. Chung explained how the crime impacted her life and every part of her identity. She discussed the ripple effects and the cycle of damage his actions continue to perpetuate.
He looked her in the eyes and apologized to her, though he said that sorry wasn’t enough.
After a second meeting with her perpetrator, Chung says that the face to face meetings have helped her. She no longer stays awake wondering if he will come after her. He became a person to her, and she to him.
“Hearing the offender say sorry has been a hugely positive step in my recovery and it has helped me overcome the perception that I am just another forgotten statistic.”
Sex crimes carry with them long-term and often far-reaching consequences that can have a ripple effect that spreads beyond the survivor to families, friends, and communities. The trauma of rape and sexual assault is exacerbated by the very system designed to provide justice to survivors, and intensified by the years of silence and shame that so many survivors endure.
There are several key elements of healing. Survivors need to be believed and vindicated, not re-victimized. They need to know they are safe and supported. Survivors need to be heard and they need to play a significant role in the justice process. Finally, survivors need the ability and space to express their varied and complex emotions of sadness, anger, and grief. Nothing about the U.S. criminal justice system allows for this.
Restorative Justice can be a Powerful, Life Changing Experience for Victims and Offenders
The stories above focus on one type of restorative justice, but other frameworks exist as well. Recently, the authors participated in a restorative justice experience aimed at improving victim empathy among men in a treatment program for sexual offending. Unexpectedly, it was transformative for us.
For context, we are both academic researchers. Dr. Alissa Ackerman is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice in the Social Work and Criminal Justice Program at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Dr. Jill Levenson is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida; she is also a licensed clinical social worker who provides group and individual therapy for people who have sexually offended. As academic researchers and scholars who study sexual violence, we both had some knowledge of restorative justice from a purely academic perspective. We did not fully appreciate the benefits of restorative justice until we personally experienced the power behind the process.
For almost a decade we have researched extensively, both independently and as co-authors, about sex offender policies and treatment practices. We have maintained a friendship close enough that in early 2014 Alissa chose Jill as one of the first people to whom she disclosed her own rape — fifteen years after it occurred.
Alissa had never reported the rape that happened when she 16, though it had profound impacts on her life in the ensuing years primarily because she never talked about it. She endured intense flashbacks and nightmares of the assault. For over a decade and a half she remained hyper-vigilant and stoic. She lived with general and social anxiety, believing it would never (and could never) cease.
She became a sex crimes researcher, in part to better understand why people commit such crimes, and she worked diligently to compartmentalize the personal from the professional. As a researcher she was terrified that people would not take her work seriously if they knew she was a survivor. It was Jill who assured her that her narrative was important to share.
As Alissa decided to speak out, the flashbacks, nightmares, and negative effects of her rape that she worked so hard to keep at bay came back with a vengeance. She began speaking publicly all over the country, sharing her unique role as a sex crimes expert and sexual assault survivor. She grew more comfortable in this role, but believed the effects of the rape would be with her forever. Then she agreed to participate in two group therapy sessions with men convicted of sexual crimes.
Alissa’s experience was transformative, restorative, and healing:
To say I was apprehensive about walking into that room is an understatement. Sure, during the course of my career I have come face to face with many individuals who have committed sexual violence, but I always had my researcher hat on. I became very good at compartmentalizing. In this case, I had to knowingly take off my research hat and allow myself to be vulnerable.
As soon as we all sat down, I could see that the men in the room were far more nervous than I was. I knew I had the opportunity to provide insight into what it is like to live life in the aftermath of rape. I could explain the flashbacks and nightmares, the impacts on my relationships, the anxiety, the guilt I felt when I snapped at my child because he jumped on my back. I believed this would help them to understand the consequences of their actions. I had no idea that sharing so vulnerably would be life-altering for me.
I have always maintained that if given the opportunity, I would want nothing more than to sit face to face with my perpetrator. So when one man asked me what I would say to my perpetrator if I had the opportunity, I did not hesitate to answer honestly and from my heart. I challenged these men to think about their actions form a different vantage point and they challenged me to see them as human beings and not just the label that has been placed on them. Even though in my role as a researcher and academic I knew this to be the case, by the end of the evening I came to the personal conclusion that we were not so different.
I walked away from the evening a different person. I felt a huge weight lifted off of me – a weight I didn’t know I was carrying. These men helped me find the closure I had been seeking for more than half my life. The evening was a pivotal point for me. It offered space in my heart and in my mind to focus my attention on other important aspects of who I am. This evening ended my fighting the bogeyman in my dreams anymore. I may not have known my perpetrator, but I know he is a person. He has a face and a name. He committed a terrible act of violence that I never received “justice” for, but he is no longer the monster I wrestle with. As I reflect on this experience I realize that going through the criminal justice process would not have helped me to heal. I would have been re-traumatized and it wouldn’t have changed having been raped. His punishment would not have changed that. Participating in these sessions is what brought me justice and peace. It brought me answers to questions I’ve pondered for 17 years.
I have always known that my identity involves so much more than the label “rape survivor.” I now fully understand that he is so much more than a rapist. I forgave him for his actions many years ago, and this recent experience allowed me to forgive myself.
Jill started her career as a child protection social worker, investigating child abuse cases, helping victims and counseling survivors. In the early 1990s, when she was treating survivors at a mental health clinic, she asked the psychologist running the sex offender treatment program: “Why do your clients do these things to my clients?” He answered: “Why don’t you sit in on a treatment group and see for yourself?”
I did that, and I never left. I’ve been counseling offenders for 24 years. Why do I do it? I do it because it’s a crucial public protection service. I help these men to understand their behavior and learn how to prevent it from happening again. How do I work with “those people?” Well, they are just people. Does treating them even help? Yes, research tells us that proper psychological interventions can reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
When Alissa came to talk to the men in my treatment groups, I knew they were anxious. They were afraid of her anger, her judgement, her shaming. We prepared the week before by generating a list of questions they would want to ask their own victims. We speculated about what she might need to hear from them. When she arrived, they were surprised when she approached them with curiosity and compassion. As she told her story, they were able to hear the various, subtle, and insidious ways that her assault has permeated through all aspects of her life for years. They were able to understand the far-reaching impact to victims of sexual assault and everyone else in their lives. Of course these men always knew that what they did was wrong and illegal, but now they were better able to appreciate the psychological harmfulness of abuse, why it was wrong, and how it leaves such a lasting scar. Several of them have requested to contact Alissa directly, and they all want to invite her back for another session. Their capacity for empathy has been forever altered, in an extraordinary and unique way.
People convicted of sex crimes inspire little sympathy. But the reality is that many of them were victims of various child maltreatments and family dysfunction in early life, and this early adversity shaped their distorted thinking, inspired maladaptive coping mechanisms (including violence), interfered with interpersonal attachment and bonding, provided little modeling of healthy relationship skills (including empathy), and diminished their self-regulation capacities. The research is clear that criminal offenders have much higher rates of adverse childhood experiences than the general population, and that these events change the neurochemistry of the brain, leading to poorer functioning in adulthood. This is not an excuse for assaultive behavior, but rather, it helps us to understand how interpersonal violence develops, so that we can inform our prevention and intervention strategies accordingly.
A society that measures justice only in the length of a prison term is limited in its capacity to effect and reduce harm. Let’s move the conversation toward understanding the needs of survivors in their healing journey, and fashion our responses accordingly.
Dr. Jill Levenson is an Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.