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What True Justice Looks Like for Sexual Violence Survivors

6 minute read

A lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump is scheduled for trial on April 25, 2023. Carroll claims that the former president raped her in a department store dressing room back in the 1990’s, and later defamed her with his disparaging denials when she made her claim public. Though rape is a felony, the time limit for criminal prosecution had long passed. Therefore, Carroll is seeking justice through a civil lawsuit. If she should prevail, the remedy the courts provide is money. The judge assesses the amount of monetary damage the defendant has caused and orders him to pay.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with money. Among other things, money can pay for the medical care that so many rape survivors need and can’t afford. But money is not the main thing that most survivors think of when they imagine justice.

As a psychiatrist and researcher who has worked with survivors of sexual and domestic violence for 50 years, I recently interviewed a group of 30 survivors about what true justice would mean to them. Their answers may come as a surprise. The overwhelming consensus from this group was that they wanted acknowledgement and amends from the bystanders, rather than just from the offenders. They knew that many people in their communities enabled the offender’s behavior, either by complicity or by inaction, or worst of all, by blaming the victim. This betrayal often hurts even more than the offender’s crimes. To make things right, survivors needed the larger community to acknowledge their suffering and to take responsibility for making amends. In growing restorative justice movements, this is called “community accountability.”

Read More: 4 Steps America Must Take To Help End Sexual Violence

Only three people I interviewed had asked for payment from the men who had harmed them. Some said that no amount of money could compensate for the harm, and the idea felt almost like a vulgar insult. Others said that accepting money from the perpetrator would make them feel as though they had been bought. In fact, most civil suits are settled out of court, often with non-disclosure agreements. In this manner, our justice system legitimizes hush money. This allows serial offenders to continue to abuse others and even write off the damages as business expenses.

More than the amount itself, it’s how the money is distributed that matters. For instance, the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 establishes a national trust fund in the Department of Justice to serve victims. The money comes from fines on convicted offenders. Victim representatives are invited to serve on the Federal and State boards that determine priorities for allocating the money. The funds have been used over the years to not only compensate individual victims for time lost from work and medical bills, but also to pay for victim advocacy services in court and support grassroots community service agencies like rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters. In effect, perpetrators as a group are required by the community to make amends to victims as a group, without requiring victims to endure an adversarial court process that is likely to compound their trauma. Having a pooled trust fund also allows for victims to be compensated fairly, regardless of whether the offender is rich or poor. Most importantly, the psychological meaning is that the larger community vindicates the survivor, and this restores the survivor’s sense of trust and belonging in their communities.

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Beyond financial restitution, justice also involves changing the cultures that enable violence and exploitation to flourish in the first place. For example, most male-dominated workplaces have long tolerated a tradition of sexual harassment. True justice may require what I call housecleaning: Removing the most notorious predators from their positions of power. One survivor I interviewed recounted how in her first teaching job at a university, a member of the senior faculty began hitting on her. Apparently he had done this many times before, and his behavior was an open secret. Quietly, she wrote down every incident over 18 months. When she had enough evidence, she consulted a lawyer, and then went to her department chairperson, the union, and the dean of the college.

After she started speaking up, five other women came forward. Her case was so strong that within 24 hours after she presented her demands, the dean came up with the money for mandatory trainings on sexual harassment and fired the offender. She reports that the faculty trainings have resulted in a better workplace for the next generation. Note that her demands for repair did not include any money for herself. Rather, she sought disciplinary action against the offender, and investment in education to change a culture that tacitly condoned abuses of power. This could be considered a successful example of justice that centers on what the survivor wants, rather than what the criminal justice system typically doles out by way of punishment and damages.

Sometimes survivor advocates take the lead to make the justice system itself more accessible. Consider the story of an organization in Vermont called Have Justice—Will Travel, founded by a remarkable attorney named Wynona Ward, who is a survivor of childhood abuse. Her mission was to use her legal skills to help families like hers. One of her first clients was a battered woman living in poverty on a back road, with no telephone, no driver’s license, and no way of getting to court. The attorney drove out to meet with the client in her home. The first step was to get the client a permanent restraining order against her husband. But legal protections were just the beginning. Establishing real safety required much more than court orders. This client also got help finding housing where she would not be isolated, learning how to drive, and getting a job. For Have Justice-Will Travel, true justice means not only gaining legal protection for survivors, but also enabling them to recover and thrive. It means bringing the law from the courthouse to the people. Imagine if reparative services like these were available to every survivor in the country. This could be a model of how to make true amends.

Restitution can take many forms. It may mean requiring offenders to give back to victims by paying for crisis services that promote healing. It may mean removing predators from positions of authority and changing the workplace so that abuse of power is no longer tolerated. It may mean bringing victim advocates into courtrooms or legal services into women’s homes. There are different ways that survivors can be “made whole” by their communities—money might be the least of them. Of greater importance to many survivors is an active commitment from the larger community to reform the institutions, including the courts, that have allowed violence and exploitation to thrive in the first place.

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