Is Restorative Justice effective for Sexual Assault?

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Cindy
  • Cindy’s Support Person- Amber
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Luke
  • Luke’s Support Person – Zane
  • Head of Hall – Ray
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Luke sexually assaulted Cindy.


The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual assault has been an area of ongoing debate within the field. Some practitioners feel that the power difference present in cases of sexual violence mean that it is unfit for a restorative justice response. In New Zealand, Project Restore has made great strides in adapting the restorative justice process to make it safe for those who have experienced sexual harm. In the US, the Campus PRISM Project is also doing great work promoting restorative initiatives to address sexual misconduct on university campuses. The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual violence has shown positive results, aiding in the healing journey of victims, increasing offender understanding and accountability for wrongdoing, and preventing reoccurrence.

Sexual violence is devastatingly prevalent, and many victims choose not to report incidents of sexual harm because the investigation and court process can cause so much additional harm. Additionally, because it is often people known to the victim who commit sexual violence, some victims may be reluctant to report the crime. They often do not want to the offender to suffer the punitive consequences that may negatively impact the rest of his/her life. Particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is growing support for the option of restorative justice to be made available to victims of sexual violence. For some victims, what they really want after an experience of sexual assault is for the offender to know how they were affected and for it to never happen again to them or other women.

It was the second week of the university school year when Cindy came back to the residential hall from drinking with her friends. She did not want to go to sleep yet and her friend Luke invited her to come hang out in his room. They sat down on his bed. Luke was sober and Cindy was highly intoxicated. Eventually, Luke started touching Cindy underneath her underwear. Cindy said it took her a moment to realize what was happening, but once she did she got up and left the room. The next morning, Luke texted Cindy to say he was sorry if anything happened last night that she didn’t want to happen.

Cindy tried to put the incident out of her head over the coming weeks, but it weighed on her. She struggled with depression and self-harming and found it hard to focus. She had seen a counselor, but still was struggling to heal. She avoided Luke in the hall, but lived in fear of running into him. It was in conversation with a friend weeks later that she realized that what had happened to her was sexual assault. Her friend, Amber, encouraged her to tell the RA what happened. The RA then reported the incident to the Head of Hall, Ray.

When the Head of Hall met with Cindy, they talked through what happened and her options moving forward. They could contact the police and file charges against Luke for sexual assault. Cindy did not want to do that, she expressed that what she really wanted was for Luke to know how awful it had been for her and to make sure he never did it again. Ray explained the restorative justice option and Cindy said she would like to meet with the facilitators to learn more. Ray also met with Luke, who said he would be willing to participate in the restorative justice process. In the mean time, Ray moved Luke onto another far away floor so that Cindy wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him.

Cindy’s friend Amber came with her to meet with my co-facilitator and I. They told us the story of what happened and Cindy shook and cried, saying again that she just needed Luke to know how much what he had done had affected her. Amber was very angry with Luke and said she had often felt like hurting him when she saw him. More than anything, she wanted her friend to feel better. After hearing the story and the devastating effect the assault had on her life, we explained in detail what a restorative justice process would look like and answered Cindy’s questions. In the end, Cindy decided that she wanted to go forward with the process.

Luke came to the pre-conference with a new friend, Zane, as his support. Many of his friends from the first few weeks of the year had been unwilling to talk with him since word of what he had done to Cindy had spread. Luke was suffering from what many perpetrators of sexual assault are experiencing in the #MeToo era; he had been exiled for his behavior.

There is, I think, a natural urge to exile someone who has caused this sort of harm. It is part of how we have traditionally expressed that we find a behavior abhorrent and will not tolerate it in our community. In a tight community like a residential hall, it is also likely a way of showing the victim that she is loved and cared for, even if the exile isn’t what she wanted. It is an incredibly positive thing that in the #MeToo era, more and more stories of sexual assault are being told. Increasingly though, it is clear that if we were to continue exiling the men who have committed sexual violence, we would soon have very few left. We need to find a way to pursue justice, while also prioritizing healing and reintegrating for all parties, and above all else, educating men about consent and shifting cultural narratives and gender roles so that they encourage respectful sexual relationships. We also need to fix porn. Particularly in the university context, it is increasingly apparent to me how many of men’s dangerous views and behaviors in regards to sex may originate in the portrayal of sex in porn, which is rarely consensual, and often one of their only sources of information. Rarely do boys and young men have the opportunity for honest, open conversation about how to be respectful sexual partners.

The impulse to exile also causes significant harm to the offender. Luke said that since the word had spread about what he did to Cindy, he had been severely depressed and had considered suicide. He said again and again that what he had done is not who he is or who he wants to be. He spoke about how he wished he could take back that night, how he couldn’t believe what he had done. We arranged for Luke to meet a couple times with a counselor before moving forward with the restorative justice meeting so that he could work through some of the pain he had experienced and be ready to hear how Cindy had been affected. After a few meetings, we spoke with Luke again and he said he was ready to move forward.

When we brought Cindy, Luke, Amber, Zane and Ray together for the restorative justice conference, there was a feeling of extreme tension and nervousness in the air. Luke was very remorseful as he told the story of what had happened, but it was clear that he didn’t understand the full impact his actions had on Cindy. Cindy cried as she spoke about her experience that night and her struggles since then, letting it all out. Amber spoke about her anger with Luke and how she felt scared when she heard about him texting another girl who was also a friend of hers. In one powerful moment, Luke explained that he was only texting that girl because he had been worried about her getting home safe because she was walking around late at night alone. Cindy interrupted him crying as she said, “So you were worried about the exact same thing happening to her that you did to me? … We don’t need you to walk us home, women are fine by ourselves and we have each other.” The message was clear and powerful: women don’t need protection; all they need is for men to cease the violence against them and to treat them with respect.

The conversation about impacts continued for a long time. The participants had a chance to ask each other questions, to explain the extent of the devastation that had resulted from that night. There were many moments of silence as the powerful realizations that unfolded settled in. Luke apologized many times for what he had done and was visibly impacted by what he learned in the process.

When we moved to talk about ideas for repair, Cindy said she really had just wanted the apology and to move forward. She said she wanted Luke to feel like he could go to the dining hall and live his life, she didn’t want him exiled, though she also didn’t want to specifically interact with him in the future. They agreed to give each other space. Amber said she still felt a lot of anger, though it had lessened a bit, but was happy to do whatever Cindy needed. Ray suggested that Luke continue seeing the counselor to examine some of his thought patterns that had led to the assault. Ray also suggested that Luke read a book about consent and said that he would read it with him, so that they could meet each week to talk about the book and what they had learned. The whole circle agreed with these ideas and felt that it was a good way to ensure nothing like this happened again. Luke had also come with an apology letter for Cindy, which he gave her, saying that she could choose if she wanted to read it or not.

In the final circle, each participant expressed how grateful he or she was for the opportunity to talk through what happened and that they felt better moving forward. Comparing the feeling in the room to the beginning of the conference, there was still certainly a strain between the two parties, but there was a sense of a weight having been lifted. A significant step towards healing and repair had been taken.

Restorative justice will certainly not be the best option for every case of sexual assault, but it should be an option. Like Cindy, some victims will want and need the opportunity to talk directly to the person who harmed them, in a safe and controlled space, to make sure that person understands the full extent of the harm caused, and never does it again. It is a process that honors and respects the experiences of all participants, rather than tearing them apart and doubting them like often happens to victims in sexual assault trials. It is a process that can transform and reintegrate offenders, rather than exiling them. It is a process that pursues justice and healing in equal measure, and for all involved. It is a process with so much to give at this point in human history.

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