Dear Garden State,
Over the last year, NJCASA at the Intersections has explored the intersections of oppression and sexual violence. We have written about the historical context of sexual violence for survivors from marginalized communities, how systems can often fail to meet the needs of diverse survivors, and the ways in which our own privilege may limit our full understanding of these issues.
In the wake of continued police brutality against Black Americans, we must recommit ourselves to the work of racial justice. We must acknowledge that racism is alive and well in our country, our systems, our movement, and in us as individuals. The truth is that we cannot address sexual violence without addressing racism and racist violence, as the two are deeply entwined. We cannot bring a more just society into being without addressing the racism that pervades our systems and ourselves.
This year, we had planned to expand on the foundation built in year one to envision a brighter future – one in which pathways to justice and healing are expanded for all survivors. We believe in this vision and we uphold this plan. At the same time, we recognize that to speak of “a brighter future” in the face of a global pandemic that affects all of us while also disproportionately wreaking havoc and bringing suffering and death to people of color and the extra-judicial killings of Black Americans that stretch back some 400 years and continue, seemingly unabated today, would lack the necessary self-reflection that our movement, and especially the white people in our movement, must employ.
Therefore, we intend to use this space to recommit ourselves to continually anchoring our conversations in an anti-oppression framework, that calls sexual violence what it is – an abuse of power – while also highlighting that it disproportionately impacts survivors from marginalized communities. This year, we explore how two distinct but complementary interventions – restorative justice and prevention – can empower survivors, their loved ones, and entire communities by boldly imagining and working towards a world in which sexual violence is reduced while access to justice is increased. At the same time, we will continue to explore how racism and oppression inform the anti-sexual violence movement.
Our legal system too often fails survivors of sexual violence. Most survivors never report their sexual assaults to law enforcement. Even when survivors do choose to access the criminal justice system, convictions are rare – out of every 100 reported rapes, 19 lead to an arrest, five result in a guilty plea, and just one results in a guilty verdict. Additionally, we know that survivors who choose to engage with law enforcement often end up feeling retraumatized by the experience. Research has found that after engaging with law enforcement, 71 percent of survivors felt depressed, 89 percent felt violated, and 91 percent reported feeling disappointed.
When we center survivors of color, and in particular Black, brown, indigenous and immigrant survivors, we must also take police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in sentencing into account. For survivors who are immigrants, survivors who are LGBTQ+, and survivors from communities of color, engaging with the criminal justice system can be especially fraught. Legal advocates for immigrant survivors have noted that “many victims are afraid they will be deported when they report their domestic abuse or sexual assault. They are fearful that any contact with law enforcement puts them in a more dangerous position than staying silent.” LGBTQ+ survivors state that the expectation of homophobia and transphobia from law enforcement and the courts are a barrier to reporting sexual violence. Statistics from the Department of Justice reveal that for every Black woman who reports sexual violence, another 15 do not.
The current criminal justice system, while a valid and sometimes validating choice for some survivors, cannot be the only path to justice. By expanding our concept of what justice can look like and how survivors can pursue it, we better meet the needs of all victims of sexual violence.
Restorative justice is one approach to responding to sexual violence that aims to center survivors, hold those who have caused harm accountable, and help communities heal. With roots in Tibetan, Mennonite, Navajo, and Māon communities, among others, restorative justice does not necessarily make decisions about guilt or innocence, but instead focuses on repairing harm caused to individuals and communities. Over the course of the next year we will use this space to explore how restorative justice can benefit survivors and communities by:
- Creating space for truth telling, acknowledgment of harm, and community healing;
- Prioritizing active accountability for those who caused harm;
- Reducing the risk of reoffending; and
- Resulting in an increased sense of justice for survivors.
While restorative justice holds tremendous potential as a tool in the fight against sexual violence, we cannot solely invest in addressing assaults that have already taken place. A truly radical reimagining involves envisioning and working towards a world in which sexual violence is prevented from ever occurring in the first place. For this reason, we will also be focusing on primary prevention – a data-driven public health approach to preventing sexual violence by exposing and eradicating the harmful norms that allow violence to flourish.
A truly radical reimagining involves envisioning and working towards a world in which sexual violence is prevented from ever occurring in the first place.
As a society, when we talk about preventing sexual violence, we often focus on tactics such as blue lights on campuses, rape whistles, and self-defense courses. These are all risk reduction strategies – they seek to reduce or minimize the risk that someone is victimized. Risk reduction focuses on individual acts of sexual violence rather than the root causes of sexual violence. Some of these methods can be empowering but it must be kept in mind that risk reduction, by focusing on what potential victims can do to protect themselves, can inadvertently increase victim-blaming attitudes by placing responsibility on the victim rather than the perpetrator.
Primary prevention stands in contrast to risk reduction by focusing on changing the culture that has allowed sexual violence to occur in the first place. Like restorative justice, prevention can benefit both survivors and entire communities by allowing us to understand root causes and work to address them. Over the course of the next year we will use this space to explore how prevention can benefit survivors and communities by:
- Helping us better understand the risk and protective factors for sexual violence perpetration and the deep relationship between sexual violence and historic and ongoing racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism;
- Allowing us to do the work of dismantling those harmful belief systems and norms to build a world free from sexual violence;
- Building from the grassroots to not only integrate but to foreground the expertise of communities who have long fought oppression and violence, including sexual violence, into a shared vision of a better future.
Just as restorative justice practitioners must understand and embrace prevention principles in order to reduce the risk of reoffending, so too must prevention practitioners think boldly about preventing sexual violence from re-occurring, potentially though the use of restorative justice models.
As we enter a new year of #AtTheIntersections, we will continue exploring the intersections of oppression and sexual violence by taking a deep dive into real life examples of those dynamics at work—in our political structures, our legal systems, our communities, our movement, and ourselves. We will work to expand what justice can look like and envision a world that prioritizes the needs of survivors while providing accountability for those who caused harm and offering opportunities for community healing and wellness. Join us on this next step of our journey as we center restorative justice and prevention to envision a world free from violence, trauma, and oppression.
The NJCASA Team
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