Can Restorative Justice Counter Harmful Narratives of Masculinity?

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Peter
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Nathan
  • Friend – Jake
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University counseling staff

Factual Synopsis: Nathan sexually assaulted Peter at a party.


Peter and Nathan had been friends for a long time. They grew up together and chose to live together for university. At a party one night, Nathan was very drunk and grabbed Peter’s butt a couple times. Peter told him to cut it out. Nathan then grabbed Peter’s penis under his pants. Peter walked away and was very upset and left the party.

Over the coming weeks, Peter was depressed. He said he had good days and bad days, but on the bad days he couldn’t do anything. He was also extremely angry with Nathan. At home, he mostly hid in his room so that he wouldn’t have to see him. He started seeing a counselor at the university to talk about what happened.

Peter told the counselor that he didn’t want to go to the police about the assault, but he did need something to happen. He couldn’t just forget it. The counselor told Peter about restorative justice and reached out to our office to see if we would be willing to facilitate a process.

We met with Peter for a pre-conference and he talked about how hard it had been for him. In addition to the broken trust with Nathan and all the emotional aftermath of the assault, Peter had also been dealing with issues with his friends. He said that Nathan had done the same thing to another guy in their friend group that night (Logan) and he hadn’t seemed to be affected by it. Peter said that his friend group seemed to think he was overreacting to what happened, that he should just let it go. He thought that they would likely not have the same response if the assault had happened to a female friend.

At the end of the pre-conference, Peter had decided that he did think the restorative justice process would be helpful to his healing journey and said that he would ask Nathan and their friend Jake (who is a ring leader within their group) to participate. My co-facilitator and I offered to help with these conversations, but Peter said he wanted to talk with them. This is a fairly unusual referral process, but because Peter was a self-referral, we were comfortable with him making the call on how to move forward.

Our pre-conference with Nathan was long and meaningful. He told us about his painful history with his dad and how it had come to a breaking point on the same day as the incident. He told us about how he drank to escape that pain and had realized that he had a problem with alcohol. He had been sober since that night and planned to continue not drinking. He said he didn’t remember the night, but that a couple weeks after it happened, when he still couldn’t figure out why Peter was so angry with him, a friend had told him the story of what he had done. When he said out loud to us that he had grabbed Peter’s penis he paused and said that it was the first time he had said out loud what he had done. It was a powerful moment of taking responsibility.

Our pre-conference with Jake was, in all honesty, a bit frustrating as a facilitator. Peter’s concern that his friends were not taking the incident seriously, likely in large part because he is a man, proved true in our conversation with Jake. We did our best to ask respectful and curious open-ended questions to encourage Jake to examine the sexist nature of his response. In retrospect, the co-facilitator and I both wished that we had scheduled one more pre-conference with Jake to dig deeper into those issues before moving forward with the process. However, we also knew that having the opportunity to hear Peter’s full story would impact him.

We met one more time with Peter for a second pre-conference before bringing everyone together in order to talk through exactly what he wanted to say to Nathan. Peter came to that meeting having written down everything he really wanted Nathan to hear. We went through it together to decide the questions I would ask him to help prompt him to share everything he needed to share. What was interesting was that the questions we arrived on from the process of him thinking through what he needed to say to Nathan matched exactly the questions we would normally ask the victim in a restorative justice process.

  • What happened?
  • How were you affected at the time?
  • How have you been impacted since?
  • How has this affected your relationship with friends and family?
  • What are the main issues for you?

The first part of the restorative justice process went beautifully. Nathan took responsibility for his actions and talked through some of the context of the issues with his dad, while explaining that he did not mean for that to be an excuse, just a part of the whole story. He talked about how terrible he felt when he heard what he did and how much Peter’s friendship meant to him. He talked about his decision to no longer drink and how helpful it had been. Nathan cried as Peter told his story and spoke about how it had affected him, both in the moment and the weeks since. Peter spoke about how angry he was with Nathan and about how at the root of that anger was the violation of trust by a long-time friend. They both had a chance to ask each other questions and Nathan made a genuine apology to Peter.

Peter also spoke about how feeling like his friends were judging his response was difficult and how he thought that they would have taken it more seriously if he were a woman. When it was Jake’s turn to speak, he talked about how he had thought through whether his reaction might be different if Peter were a female friend and said that he thought maybe it would be, and that he needed to look at that. In the next breath though, Jake talked about how, because the same thing hadn’t impacted Logan, it seemed like Peter had been overreacting. At this point, I had to interject as facilitator to remind Jake about the ground rule of respectful speech. I explained that part of respectful speech was not judging how other people respond to harmful events. He could speak about how he had been impacted, but could not pass judgment on how another person had been affected. Tone is particularly important in these moments of reinstating ground rules. This reminder was delivered in a gentle and non-judgmental tone. It was well received by Jake and he was able to reframe what he wanted to say to focus on impacts.

In the repairs phase, Peter and Nathan decided to spend some time together, but also to recognize that there will be good days and bad days and sometimes they may need some space. As a group, they also decided to have more sober events for the friend group to enjoy. By the end of the restorative justice process, each of the young men had expressed their gratitude to the others for the process and that it had been helpful. Nathan said that he originally had agreed to participate for Peter’s benefit, but that he had gotten a lot out of the experience himself. After we closed the circle, they all hugged and lingered around for a while talking before leaving the space together.

I worry that at the end of the process, Jake still didn’t fully get it. Masculinity narratives that tell Jake that Peter should just laugh it off, toughen up, and move on run deep, and caused further harm to Peter following the assault. Still, I saw that hearing the full, honest impact of the event straight from Peter helped to move this bias a bit. Beyond that, I think the simple act of sitting down together as three men to talk openly, honestly, and respectfully about what happened and the emotional impacts counters damaging narratives of masculinity in its own way. It was powerful to see these three young men being so open and vulnerable with each other. I hope that the very act of participating in the process itself will do its part to reinforce a masculinity that prizes open communication and emotional awareness.

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