Thursday, June 17, 2021

Embracing Restorative Approaches to Address Sexual Harm.

By Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD, Alexa Sardina, PhD, & Kevin Lynch 

In June 2018, four rape survivors of rape sat in an accountability circle for a man who had committed a rape 40 years prior.  We, the authors of this piece, are two of those women, and the man who committed the rape.  For over three hours, we grappled with topics related to our individual experiences with sexual harm. We did not know it at the time, but this accountability circle was the start of a journey that the three of us would take together.

For several years, Alissa has been participating in, facilitating, and writing about restorative justice as it relates to sexual harm. While restorative justice has gained popularity in general, few people advocate for its use in instances of sexual harm, despite evidence that it can be effective in helping survivors to heal and holding those who have harmed accountable.  In 2016, Kevin had written a blog in the Huffington Post in which he admitted committing rape in his early 20s.  Kevin had subsequently learned about the work Alissa was doing and asked her to organize a vicarious accountability circle for him.  Alexa was one of the survivors who also participated. For Kevin and Alexa, the experience of that circle was enough to convince them that others should be made aware of the healing power of restorative justice and should be able to participate in restorative processes if they so choose.

Current criminal justice interventions do not prevent or decrease rates of sexual harm, nor do they address the needs of survivors.  As such, the criminal legal process should not be the only avenue available to address sexual harm. Restorative justice offers a trauma-informed, humane approach to holding people accountable and providing opportunities for healing for all parties.

Restorative justice is a human-centered approach to repairing and preventing harm. It requires honesty and often difficult conversations between people who have experienced harm and those who have caused it.  Restorative processes can take many forms, including one-on-one facilitated conversations and circle processes that provide everyone involved (and their support people) the opportunity to be seen and heard. Restorative justice allows people who have experienced harm to speak their truth and ask for their specific needs to be met.  It requires people who have caused harm to fully acknowledge the harm they’ve caused by naming it, discussing their understanding of the impact of their actions, actively listening to the person, they harmed (or a proxy), and then making amends for that harm.

Some of the most common needs expressed by survivors of sexual harm include telling their story in their own way, understanding why the harm was perpetrated against them, having their harm and their pain acknowledged and hearing how future harmful behavior by the person who harmed them will be prevented.  A restorative justice response encourages collaboration and reintegration of all parties, neither further coercing nor isolating either party, as our current criminal legal responses tend to do.

Not all survivors are willing to meet with the person who harmed them. Conversely, individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses may not be allowed to meet the person they harmed.  Vicarious restorative justice is an alternative model that brings people who have been harmed together with those who have harmed. However, these individuals are not parties to the same acts of sexual harm. The accountability circle in which we engaged is a prime example of vicarious restorative justice.

Much of the work Alissa has done using the vicarious restorative justice model has been done in treatment groups with people who have committed acts of sexual harm.  Based on this work with over 500 individuals, she has come to understand the value of this process for use in clinical practice. As such, ATSA members may be interested in learning more about this process.

Since the accountability circle, we participated in three years ago, together we have learned a lot about the value of restorative justice. For Alexa, the most important lesson was that people who experience sexual harm and those who perpetrate it have more in common than most people would believe. There is more that unites us than separates us. For Kevin, it was the realization both of the lasting harm he likely had caused, and of the power of accountability as a means of healing for survivors.  For Alissa, it was the recognition that all people impacted by sexual harm could experience healing through restorative processes. Together, we have found that most people do not fully understand what restorative justice is, what it requires of people, or how they can participate in restorative processes if interested.

…. And we believe the time has come to take concrete steps to restore the world from sexual harm by making restorative justice inclusive of and accessible to more and more people and communities who are affected by it.  Such steps might include developing a model for how to use it, training facilitators and practitioners to use it, helping communities, organizations, and institutions develop restorative processes, advocating for restorative justice, and taking steps to engage more people who have been harmed, as well as people who have been harmed.

Current criminal legal processes have failed to prevent sexual violence, to help survivors to heal, or to truly hold people accountable for the sexual harms they cause. The time has come to embrace restorative approaches to address all forms of sexual harm. This requires that we accept the complex dualities and contradictions that must be understood and mastered to restore the world from sexual harm. We believe that ending sexual harm requires that everyone be at the table.


*Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD is a criminal justice professor at California State University, Fullerton. Alexa Sardina, PhD is a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento. Kevin Lynch is a consultant and writer in the nonprofit and social enterprise fields.  Together they are co-founders of Ampersands Restorative Justice, an organization designed to brining restorative justice for sexual harm to scale.

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