I am thrilled and honoured to have Danielle of From Two to One sharing in this space today. Danielle is a talented writer, advocate for justice, and one of the most clear voices writing on ethics and feminism on the Internet right now. She does me a great kindness, in this post, taking our conversation on sexual ethics a step further, considering what justice may look like today for victims of abuse.
[[Trigger warnings for mentions of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sex trafficking. For a more nuanced understanding of how I am using the terms victim and survivor, please see this post.]]
Just as Preston’s previous posts heralded a sexual ethic or paradigm rather than a set of rules, this post is not a comprehensive explanation of every possible manifestation of justice for victims and survivors of sexual violence. Every survivor thinks of justice differently. For some, the ultimate form of justice may be putting their rapist behind bars. For others, it may be having them removed from the university they both attend. And for many, it’s simply being believed when they summon the courage to begin healing by naming their experience and potentially even sharing it with others.
The following points are an attempt to lay the ground rules for what a just system could and should look like in the modern age for victims and survivors of sexual violence. To build this post, I draw upon my own knowledge and experiences as a scholar and advocate on issues of gender-based violence, including rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking. I also draw upon the voices of the brave and resilient survivors in my own life who have shared pieces of their story and their vision for justice.*
A just system, one that fundamentally upholds the personhood of victims and survivors, is comprised of two main elements: voice and agency.
While these terms are rich with meaning and context, at a high-level, voice refers to victims being able speak out against sexual violence in their own words, in their own time, and in their own way. Similarly, in its simplest form, agency refers to victims being able to make the decisions that are best for themselves in the aftermath of their traumatic experiences. Both voice and agency are powerful components of what justice looks like because they are both survivor-centric and survivor-led.
Let’s first delve more deeply into what voice is and how it contributes to justice for victims and survivors. I want to start by making something very clear: Victims and survivors of sexual violence are not voiceless. Contrary to the plethora of international development organizations encouraging us to be a “voice for the voiceless,” every single human being has a voice. Others, especially the perpetrators of violence, may seek to de-legitimize or silence the voices of victims and survivors. They may be told directly by the perpetrator or indirectly by rape culture that that they were asking for it, that they will never be believed, that their voices don’t matter, or that they don’t even have a voice.
This is precisely why rape and other forms of sexual violence are such grave injustices: the violation effectively says that you are not a person, but something. It says you are not male or female made in the image of God, but less than fully human. It says you do not have inherent dignity and worth as a human, but are an object.
But the truth is that nothing can take away the voices of victims because nothing can take away the personhood of victims. To be a person means to have a voice, and to have a voice means to live out one’s personhood. A system and culture of justice says you are a person. You are fully human. You have inherent dignity and worth. You have rights. You have a voice. And it amplifies rather than silences these voices.
Whereas an unjust system seeks to silence the voices of rape victims, a just system seeks to amplify them.
An example of an unjust system is how the administration of the University of North Carolina recently attempted to silence one of the voices of their students, a survivor of rape by an ex-boyfriend, for speaking out against rape and sexual assault on college campuses. Though she never revealed her abuser’s name or identity, the administration threatened expulsion for her outspoken efforts — i.e. using her voice — because it was “intimidating” to her alleged abuser according to the school’s Honor Code. When she asked whether she could violate the Honor Code simply by saying that she was raped, they answered affirmatively.**
An example of a just system is from the anti-trafficking organization I worked with a few years ago. As part of my job, I helped coordinate a multi-stakeholder campaign to end the demand for paid sexual services in my state. One of our most valuable stakeholders was a nonprofit whose leaders were themselves survivors of the commercial sex trade. While the trauma these women experienced can never be undone, they were able to use their voices to share critical information about how to best assist those in need of resources. This example isn’t to say something as trite as “God works all things together for good,” but it does highlight the need to welcome and amplify the voices of survivors at the table when implementing efforts to address rape, sexual assault, and/or sex trafficking.
One of the simplest yet most profound ways to amplify the voices of victims and survivors around you (and there are plenty whether you know it or not) is to let them tell their stories in their own words, in their own way, and in their own time. It is a sacred act for a survivor to share a piece of his/her story. Do not desecrate it by inappropriate prying or Olivia Benson-like concerned pity. Rather, honor the reality that survivors are heroes of another war, an invisibilized one over their bodies and humanity.
Now let’s delve into what agency is and how it contributes to justice for victims and survivors. Broadly speaking, agency refers to the capacity to make one’s own choices or to act on one’s will. But in an unjust system, oppressive structures limit this capacity, especially for victims and survivors of sexual violence.
Whereas an unjust system denies victims’ agency by assuming the worst of the them and the best of the perpetrator, a just system upholds agency by believing victims and blaming perpetrators.
An unjust system assumes the worst about victims because the system itself is predicated on the belief that if you follow the rules, you won’t become a victim. According to this belief, if you were victimized, you either didn’t follow the rules (which are relative and constantly evolving), or you should have “prevented” the victimization.*** This is exactly why “what were you wearing?” is one of the most common questions asked to rape victims. It is testing (subjectively) whether the victim followed the rules and whether s/he did enough to “prevent” the rape. The reality is that the only way to prevent rape is for the rapist to...wait for it...NOT RAPE.
A just system doesn’t uphold agency by equating victimhood with weakness, but rather by believing victims’ stories and by trusting victims and survivors to make the best decisions for themselves in the aftermath of their traumatizing experience. As one survivor told me, “I want a society that doesn’t pick apart the victims’ stories when they claim they were violated. Why aren't we instead picking apart the perpetrator's actions? [What happened to me] is not my fault, and I wish society gave me a forum to express this without immediately rushing to blame me.”
A just system believes, not blames, the victim. So whether a survivor wants to press charges or not, a just system would have criminal and civil laws and legal aid in place to support the victim. Whether a survivor wants to be medically examined or not, a just system would have qualified, compassion health care providers available. Whether a survivor wants to tell others about the experience or not, a just system would believe them and blame the perpetrator.
The bottom line is that justice looks different for every victim and survivor of sexual violence. But in order for justice to become actualized in their lives, we need to build a more just system, one that fundamentally reaffirms victims’ and survivors’ humanity in the wake of the ultimate dehumanization — by amplifying their voices and upholding their agency.
Danielle L. Vermeer is a social impact consultant by day and blogger on the intersections of marriage, faith, and feminism by night. A longtime advocate in the anti-trafficking sector, she is passionate about amplifying the voices of survivors and sharing stories of healing. She and her husband are on a journey of two becoming one and live in the Chicago suburbs with their adorable baby-dog. Connect with her at www.fromtwotoone.com or on Twitter at @fromtwotoone.
* To be clear, my experiences and ideas are by no means universal or prescriptive, but they do undergird the paradigm by which we can begin to have informed, productive conversations about what justice looks like for victims and survivors of sexual violence. My primary goal for this post is to not delve into all the different types of justice — restorative, retributive, distributive, procedural, etc. — and how they apply to this context, but rather how we can foster a system that fundamentally believes, affirms, supports, and advocates for victims and survivors of gender-based violence.
** Since then, she and several other survivors have filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of themselves and an additional 64 other victims, arguing that their rights have been violated according to several federal laws such as the Clery Act and the equal opportunity mandates under Title IX. (If you’re interested, you can sign this petition calling on UNC to take action against sexual assault and rape on campus.)
*** As I wrote recently, there is a critical difference between harm and/or risk reduction and prevention. Prevention means to stop the crime from happening in the first place, i.e. it means that the potential rapist doesn’t end up raping. Prevention does NOT mean that the victim does something to stop the perpetrator from inflicting harm, i.e. doesn’t wear a short skirt.