By Alissa Ackerman, PhD
On September 28, 2018, HBO’s Vice News Tonight aired a special on consent and accountability. The episode ended with a restorative justice (RJ) session that I facilitated. For the first time, a mainstream media outlet highlighted the power and depth of RJ in cases of sexual misconduct.
I have written elsewhere about the importance of RJ. During the heightened conversations around accountability in response to the Brock Turner case, Dr Jill Levenson and I co-authored several blogs on what a different conversation might look like, even appearing as guest bloggers for the Sexual Abuse blog. We have written about the importance of a change in discourse, where we no longer see those who have perpetrated sexual abuse and those who have experienced it as diametrically opposed and we have discussed the importance of actual accountability, a process that the criminal justice process seriously thwarts. Yet, in the years of engaging this work, I have not experienced the promise of a moment of reckoning such as this one.
The conversation around RJ and sexual misconduct is not new, but it has not been mainstream either. The Vice News episode on consent and accountability created an opportunity to shift popular discourse. Prior to this episode, few had even heard of the term restorative justice. One television anchor repeatedly referred to the process as reformative justice. Despite the lack of collective knowledge or understanding of what RJ promises, the responses I have received since the HBO episode aired almost two weeks ago have been both heart wrenching and full of hope.
I have heard from those who have experienced sexual abuse who want nothing more than to find closure and hope for the opportunity to sit face to face with the person who harmed them. I have heard from people – both those in my life and complete strangers – that the Vice News episode expanded their thinking about the ways they have behaved in the past. I have also heard from those who are now remembering experiences that were harmful.
For too long we have allowed our conversations around sexual abuse and misconduct to remain siloed. This includes many of us in the fields of sexual abuse treatment and prevention. There are professionals who advocate for those who have been sexually victimized and those who work with individuals who have sexually violated others. Even when we recognize that many of our clients fit both boxes, we tend to talk about “survivors” and “perpetrators” as mutually exclusive groups.
The fact of the matter is that all of us focus on the same end goals – healing and prevention.
The Vice News special featured two RJ participants, Alexis and James. I have been working closely with Alexis and James since January. Their progress, both as individuals and collectively, has been nothing short of amazing. Both articulate how the process has helped them rediscover each other’s humanity. Alexis has seen a marked decrease in the PTSD symptoms she had lived with for the previous ten years. More healing has occurred in the last nine months than in the previous ten years, simply because the two were willing to connect in a vulnerable and authentic way.
Criminal justice processes can include RJ. In fact, most of the RJ work in which I have engaged has been with men and woman mandated to treatment after a sex offence conviction. The most life-changing and life-affirming moments have arisen from these RJ processes, but they leave me wondering what impact RJ could have at the beginning of the criminal justice process. How much harm, pain, and shame could be avoided if we engaged? How many people would take accountability for their actions, or at the very least consider the harm their behaviour may have caused if there were spaces for them to do so?
When I first began speaking about RJ and sex crimes, the very idea offended many people. Today, those same people have inquired about how they can be involved. The HBO Vice News episode finally shined a light on a process that can help heal individuals, communities, and perhaps our entire society. One cannot disentangle the timing of this episode and our current political climate. Indeed, Lara Bazelon published a piece in Slate about how we are in dire need of RJ in the wake of this most recent Supreme Court confirmation. We remain fully entrenched in an adversarial model that has proven repeatedly that it does not work. Perhaps when we move away from such a model, healing can finally begin.
We are professionals in the field of prevention and treatment and we must be the first to step out of our silos.