Restorative Justice and Sexual Violence Accountability

Anarchists take a hard stand against the prison system and carceral, punitive, and statist punishments schemas. As a result, we seek alternatives and tend to veer towards community and survivor-led accountability processes with a generally restorative and transformative intention. Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach towards dealing with harm done that focuses on repairing the actual harm rather than just physically removing or punishing someone.  Transformative justice (TJ) is the larger structural lens that should accompany restorative processes and seeks to transform the conditions that contribute to cycles of marginalization, violence, and trauma without removing personal accountability for offenders. Transformative justice seeks to normalize a culture of restorative rather than punitive justice beyond individual cases.

RJ and Sexual Violence

In reality much, if not most, of the interpersonal issues that anarchist communities deal with surround incidences of sexual violence which are, at times, quite complicated to suss through. These incidents often lead to the complete dissolution or fracturing of previously functional activist networks coupled with repeated trauma for the survivors and a lack of substantive change from the individual who committed the offense. In situations where RJ doesn’t work (for any number of reasons) or meet the community’s expectations, anarchist communities often resort, either begrudgingly or, at times, blood-lustfully, into a scale ranging from dissociation to using physical violence to push people out of communities. Sexual violence is often wrapped up with state violence and many rapists and misogynists turn into informants. Because of all of the complexities these paths present it is important that we engage in accountability processes with a degree of humility because we lack perfect processes even as the imperative to create functional alternatives to the statist and racist punitive system stands looming over us.

There is significant precedent for restorative justice in sexual violence cases. It’s more difficult than most other types of crimes, though, and requires huge intrinsic buy-in from  survivors and, generally, doesn’t work for child-sexual assault (CSA). There is also the possibility of using surrogate survivors for either CSA or adult sexual assault restorative processes. The difficulty of adult “victim offender conferences” in these cases is that dynamics of the relationship that led up to the sexual violence can be re-enacted in sub-verbal ways, so even the facilitators don’t catch them but that the survivor does. There are situations where RJ works with CSA, but they’re much more complicated because people will often regress into childhood domination roles more easily. With surrogate victims there are usually different cues, so they can’t trigger the subtle domination and manipulation as easily. However, like in adult restorative processes, the surrogate survivors and offenders go through intensive preparation processes prior to the initial re-meeting to ensure that the person who committed the acts of violence is unlikely to re-create trauma for the survivor. It is generally seen as more effective to use the actual survivor and offender where appropriate. RJ is survivor-centered even as it deeply acknowledges the trauma and events leading to the offenders decisions. 

Restorative justice recognizes that harm done does not happen in isolation, and as such can only be dealt with at the level of networks of affected persons. This is why in New Zealand the family group conference model has virtually completely replaced the juvenile justice system. Some examples of the types of restorations that a person going through RJ accountability may be asked to provide for are: hearing the survivors full story and deeply understanding the impact it had on both them and the community, paying for lost wages (time taken off work for example) or costs accrued (such as therapy) as a result of the harm, help with types of tasks made difficult by the offending incident (this is dependent on the relationship of the individual process), community run restraining orders and space agreements, volunteering in a sexual abuse organization to develop empathy, etc. These examples give a sense of how both the harm done and the restorative amends processes are both collective and individual.

RJ and Serial Abusers

Restorative accountability processes tend not to work with unrepentant serial abusers, especially those with strongly sociopathic tendencies. There exists a class of people that are able to manipulate the process and reverse into the same behaviors once they’ve rebuilt a modicum of trust or escaped the spotlight. This is not most people, but there is definitely a class of people for whom this will seemingly always happen. The process of determining a person’s position in this scale is a delicate and dynamic but essential process. We all possess a degree of denial, evasiveness, and coercive will-to-power. It’s about how we react to accountability around our darker impulses, in addition to the motivating forces surrounding them, that distinguish types of persons who have committed sexual violence.

Another complex process of discovery in the wake of sexual violence is in determining the extent to which something was an accidental breakdown of consent that resulted from ignorance, intoxication, miscommunication, or the like. These breakdowns are things that do happen and are still bad and can still, at times, constitute sexual assault, but they are hugely different than things that happen repeatedly (signalling a pattern) and with associated knowledge (signalling intentionality). Anarchist accountability processes have a bad habit of blurring these two, but it makes sense that we do because there are actors in the latter category which try to hide behind the former. Although it is impossible to truly render visible someone’s exact motives, making some sense of the degree of intentionality of the violation is important in determining how to deal with the incident.

Identity Politics and Transformative Justice

Restorative justice from the broader criminal justice community and the research that comes out of it generally fails to acknowledge the role of structural violence in creating offenders. Liberals are often far too permissive as a result of structural conditions. Similarly, the mainstream criminal justice RJ movement, associated as it is with the broader status-quo, has a strategic incentive to not think too deeply about things like structural racism, trauma, and our treatment of neurodiversity vis-a-vis the prison industrial complex. While we shouldn’t give out identity based free passes, in dealing with situations we should still acknowledge that there are significant structural violence factors associated with identity politics as well as cycles of trauma and abuse at play. That being said, anarchists should be keen to consistently re-center autonomy within the field of complexly multi-determined choices.

The issues surrounding identity politics are made all the more complicated by the fact that in radical communities we try to counterbalance the structural violences of racism and the like by, to a limited extent, creating cocoons of relative safety and rights for marginalized people. However, this presents a unique opportunity for serial abusers to build and maintain a protective shell of social capital to avoid critique and dodge accountability. In the case of sexual assault people can use their relative social capital to coerce others into sexual acts and then to silence any subsequent claims of assault. Obviously the opportunists that abuse these dynamics in our communities are minorities within minorities, but, particularly within radical networks, it is an issue that crops up with some regularity and, as such, needs to be recognized head-on. Marginalization is never an excuse to abuse others. Of course, it should go without saying that more often sexual violence does happen along understood axes of power and domination through the vehicles of misogyny, racism, queer and transphobia, etc.. So, even in our search to understand why someone does something, we still need to be able to recognize violence even when it obscures its presence.

On Violence and Prevention of Harm

The questions of how to prevent further harm fill voluminous conversations far beyond the scope of this essay. However, it should be clear that the prevention of future harm is the corollary goal of the restorative amends processes of RJ and TJ. Anarchists have long struggled with this. For example, should an unrepentant serial abuser get the shit kicked out of them or worse, or does this just re-create the cycle of violence? How much of a deterrent are punitive justice and revenge, actually? How, and at what point, do we determine someone’s sincerity in engaging with accountability? What do we do when we know that to ostracize and dissociate with an emotionally manipulative person provides them fodder for their paranoid self-victimization narratives? When we do resort to internal punishments, how much punishment is enough? We’ve all seen cases where a serial violent offender got off easy for one reason or another and was never forced to change in any substantive way, yet we’ve all also seen incidents where a (still bad) breakdown of consent turned into a complete implosion of networks where the individual deemed at fault was punished with a degree of violence we’ve come to recognize from the state and our enemies. The lines are subtle and sticky. We mess this up at every turn, yet the ideals of 1) restoring harm done and 2) preventing future harm, present useful compass points along the way which we can constantly refer to as a means of holding our accountability processes accountable to both ethics and effectiveness.

Nothing tears people up quite like sexual violence. The wounds it leaves are lasting and disturbing, especially for the survivor, but for the community as well. As we struggle through the fog of trying to make healthier communities that prevent such atrocities from occurring in the first place, our approach to dealing with it when it does happen is critical. We must remain accountable to each other and our highest strivings towards consent even in our most intimate moments. As anarchists we must balance our idealism with the dangerous cruelty that our networks often face. In protecting each other and being willing to navigate authentic accountability with an eye towards restoration and prevention, we are laying the groundwork for a society of consent. A society of accountability and consent is the anarchism behind an honest rendering of the vision for a truly transformative justice.

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