How Can Restorative Justice respond to a case like prostitution that lacks a clear “victim”?  

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Responsibly Party –Tori
  • Impacted Party- Kate (roommate)
  • Hall Manager- Cheryl
  • 2 Facilitators

Disciplinary Measure Pending: Being evicted from the Residential Hall

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Tori was prostituting herself out of the dorm room she shared with Kate.

*Note that in New Zealand prostitution is not illegal, so this is not a criminal case, but it is against the code of conduct for the halls and therefore would previously have resulted in eviction.


Tori and Kate didn’t know each other before being assigned as roommates in their university dorm. The beginning of the year went well for their relationship. The girls became fast friends and were part of the same larger social group. Tori struggled with anxiety and Kate would often stay up talking with her at night to try to help her and calm her down. Before long, Tori got help through counseling at the University for her anxiety and reported that her mental health steadily improved throughout the year.

As the year continued, Tori would regularly have male guests in the room, including many older men who were not students. This was an occasional annoyance for Kate because she did not have access to the room during the time the visitors were there, but generally did not concern her.

Later in the year, Tori mentioned to Kate that she was going to be paid for sex by an older man. She said she had arranged to meet him in town. Kate was worried that meeting the unknown man in a strange location would be especially unsafe for Tori, so told Tori she could do it in their room in an attempt to keep her safe.

Kate felt concerned for Tori and also didn’t like the idea of a strange man in her bedroom, so close to her bed and things. She discussed the issue with a few friends and the conversation was overheard by an RA. When the RA reported what she had heard to Hall Management, both Tori and Kate were called in separately to discuss what had happened.

Tori thought that Kate had gone to Hall Management and so was angry with her. Quickly the mood in the room became tense. Kate was given the option to move immediately to a different room, but she said that she wanted to stay where she was and wanted to work things out with Tori. In her conversation with the Hall Manager (Cheryl), Tori admitted that she had prostituted herself in the dorm room. Following these conversations, Cheryl made the decision to refer the case to restorative justice.

We moved through the pre-conference meetings with each woman quickly so we could have the conference as soon as possible due to the ongoing tension and poor communication in the room. Tori took full responsibility for what had happened and understood why the residential hall would have a problem with it, but did not have a sense of how anyone had been impacted. Kate had a lot to say about how she had been affected and her concern for Tori, but she didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up to Tori one-on-one without a structured process and worried that she wouldn’t take it seriously.

During the restorative justice process, Kate had the chance to explain to Tori how worried she had felt for her safety and also how uncomfortable it had felt to know there was a strange man in her room, so close to her bed and things. Cheryl shared her concern for the safety of both Tori and Kate and also for the other residents in the hall. She said that in the past, a violation of this sort would have resulted in immediate eviction from the hall, but that she was glad that restorative justice was an option and that didn’t need to happen. She shared that she always loved seeing Tori’s smiling face in the hall and really valued her as part of the community.

Tori and Kate also talked about Tori’s struggles with mental health at the beginning of the year, how she is doing now, and what she needs.

When it came time to form an agreement to repair the harms, Tori suggested that she not have any more guests for the remainder of the school year and Kate and Cheryl agreed that would be helpful. The group also agreed that Tori would continue to see a counsellor on campus. Tori and Kate agreed to talk with each other when something is bothering them and to be open and respectful in listening to each other. They also agreed to respect the shared space and each other’s needs in the space. Finally, Tori’s relationship with the larger friend group had been strained by the incident and the tension between Tori and Kate. Tori hadn’t been talking to the other girls or sitting with the group at mealtime and said she didn’t know how to approach a conversation with them. Kate offered that she would go with Tori to talk with the rest of the group and put things right.

Prostitution (when it is done consensually and from a position of choice rather than need) is often an offense without a clear “victim” in the way that label is normally understood. However, even when a case lacks an obvious “victim,” there are often other impacted parties with a need to voice the harms they have experience. In this case, the main impacted party was Kate, who had experienced a violation of her space, the emotional strain of a weighty concern for her friend, and the resulting fracture in their relationship. Through the restorative justice process and its focus on harms and repairs rather than violations and punishment, these impacts were able to be voiced and understood and concrete steps were taken towards making things right.

One struggle I faced personally as a facilitator for this case is the urge to address why Tori was making the decision to prostitute herself. If she had been doing it because she needed the money, I think it would have represented a responsibility of the university to address the needs of students who are dealing with financial hardship and would be something we could address through the process. There are many on-campus resources for financial hardship that could be accessed. However, that wasn’t the case. Tori expressed that it was not something she felt like she needed to do, but rather something she wanted to do. There are many possible reasons why Tori could have wanted to pursue prostitution. For me, it felt very important that ongoing counseling was one of the outcomes of the case so that she has a space and support to explore any possible problematic, harmful or painful roots of that desire. However, this exploration is best done with the support of a counsellor, not through my questions as facilitator in the restorative justice process.

Often this can be a difficult line to walk as a facilitator. It is important to open up the space through skillful questioning for participants to say all that they need to say, but to not pressure disclosure of individual struggles that a participant may not want to share with the wider group. This case proved an important reminder of the difficulty of navigating that line.

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