Survivor experiences of the criminal justice system

****Content warning for sexual violence, rape, criminal justice system, victim blaming, racism****

There is a lot going on in colleges in the United States at present, with many feminists campaigning around sexual and dating violence on campus including the announcement of a new initiative to increase federal funding for the Department of Education to address the high rates of sexual assault on colleges campuses. In this blog from Wagatwe at Feministing she speaks about the way this initiative and the survivors who are supporting it are derailed by discussions of why survivors don’t report to the police and utilise the criminal justice system.

As a crisis worker and survivor advocate, I have spoken to many survivors who face huge amounts of pressure and scrutiny from partners, friends families and others about needing to report what happened to them to the police in order to ‘stop’ the same thing happening to other women. Many of these women don’t want to report their rapes, but are made to feel responsible for the actions of perpetrators and their crimes. Similarly, many of them do report the assaults to their schools, university’s, halls of residence, work places, doctors, or places of care and are faced with disbelief, told there is ‘nothing anyone can do’ or sometimes charged and investigated for making false allegations (a very rare occurrence).

I am not suggesting that women don’t use the criminal justice system, many women utilize the justice system and are entitled to have their day in court regardless of the outcome. What I am interested in, is this notion of the criminal justice system as the only way that survivors can seek justice and the way this ignores how survivors view their justice needs and also shuts down valid and alternative methods of seeking justice such as through Universities or through indigenous models that don’t align to western concepts of retribution and punishment. For my post grad thesis I wrote about survivors views of procedural, retributive and restorative justice and how these would better align with a host of reforms which were suggested to the New Zealand criminal justice system (which, unfortunately were never adopted).

As a diverse group of people, survivors have very mixed ideas about what justice means to them. Some wish for retribution or punitive
consequences for offenders and report having vengeful and/or violent feelings towards offenders . One New Zealand survivor notes:

His mother pleaded with me not to go through with the charge. She said if he went back to jail it would be the finish of him and that it would be the end of her. I felt sorry for her-but then he did it didn’t he? I didn’t see why he should just get away with it; after all it’s me that has to live with it.

However, a study by Doob and Sprott (1997)  found that victim/survivors of sexual violence are less supportive of extremely punitive justice systems than those who have not been affected by similar crimes.

Exposure, rather than retribution, was the most often cited reason for pursuing cases in the literature I looked at. Exposure was considered important as it served to ensure the safety of the individual survivor but also the safety of others. The intention was to prevent further crimes, rather than punish the offender for the crimes they had already committed. One victim/survivor in Herman’s (2005) study initiated civil action after the prosecutor decided not to pursue her case.

She explained, “I wanted him to go to court, money wasn’t the issue. I wanted him embarrassed. He was going to have to tell his family. He wanted to sign a confidentiality agreement; I said no of course I’m going to tell people about it’” (p.594).

This resonates with some victim/survivors in the study by Barrington et al. (1983) who felt that prison was the only available option, but this was not considered a satisfactory solution in the long term as it would not modify the offender’s behaviour.

One victim/survivor of gang rape said: “I am glad they’re in prison because another girl is safe while they’re away, but prison is not going to do them any good”

A small number of victim/survivors felt that while the criminal justice system should play a role in facilitating or producing justice for them and other victim/survivors, nothing would ever undo their experience or totally compensate them for the wrongdoing. A victim/survivor of Malcolm Rewa from Jordan’s (2008) study commented on the inadequacy of the retributive nature of the justice system:

Hearing the word guilty or not guilty is not going to take away what happened to you… we are paying for him to have three meals a day, watch TV, build up his body in the gym, blah blah blah, how ironic is that?”

Whether through formal or informal means the objective of most survivors was acknowledgement from their communities and an admission of guilt from the offender was neither “necessary nor sufficient” to validate the survivors claim. Survivors in Herman’s (2005) study were acutely aware of the way the crime was an act of disempowerment and humiliation and so sought to restore their status in the community, particularly in cases where the offender was a part of the same community.

The validation by bystanders and communities was considered of equal or greater importance, as it affirmed solidarity with the survivors and re-established their connections with their communities. Within this view of justice it was important for survivors to let their families and communities see through the offender’s deceptions (Herman, 2005):

I think I ought to believe he should be jailed, because I think it of other men who abuse children… I would think it of my father if he abused someone else… but if it was ‘just’ me, I want him to be seen for what he is by people who matter to me (p. 593).

So, alternative methods of justice such as college based processes not only fit better with the needs of survivors they are also preventative in the ways they address sexual violence in communities. If we have appropriate sanctions for sexual violence at all levels of society, if survivors are believed and their communities support them and validate their experiences, not only do we do the work of prioritisng survivors and their healing but we also send the message to offenders that we know what they have done and that their actions are unacceptable. To do this on a grand scale, in every institution, workplace, family and home is to do it properly. To do it on that scale is to create real change. When so few survivors report and so few offenders are convicted, we need to think bigger than the criminal justice system, we need to make it a part of every facet of our communities in order to send a consistent message and end rape culture.



Revisiting ‘Tomorrow when the war began’


***Content warning for: sexual violence, post traumatic stress disorder, colonisation***

I spent my new years break re-reading one of my favourite series from my childhood, the Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden. There are seven books in the original series, and an epilogue that consists of three books called ‘The Ellie Chronicles’. The books follow Ellie (the ‘writer’ of the story) and a group of her teenage friends during the invasion and colonisation of Australia by an unnamed foreign power. Ellie and her friends avoid the occupation and operate as a guerrilla group throughout the war. My 12 year old self was obsessed with these books and waited anxiously for each one to come out. My present self enjoyed re-reading them too, there are lots of positives in the way violence is explored in the series that I am glad my young self was exposed too. Ellie often discusses the complexities surrounding the gangs use of violence, and you hear her experiences first hand of the way her use of violence changes her, traumatizes her and results in the loss of many lives. Including the lives of some of her loved ones.

However, my young self never got around to reading ‘The Ellie Chronicles’, because at the time I was so disappointed in the ending. Ellie, who has dreamed of finding her mother since the war began and returning to their farm, find her mother who is so traumatised by the process of colonisation that she can barely speak. Instead of things returning to as they were before, the colonisers remain and the land is split up. Ellie and her family only end up with a small portion of their land returned, and have to lease out the rest of it at exorbitant rates to the occupiers. So, as is the reality of many countries, colonisation continues and is ongoing, something my young self couldn’t seem to fathom. As an adult, I am disappointed that at no point during the series was the parallels to this situation and the lived experiences of the indigenous people of Australia ever mentioned. The fact that Ellie often refers to Australia as ‘my country’, when in fact, that country was stolen from indigenous aboriginals using many of the same tactics of violence and dispossession outlined in the story (and many others) is conveniently invisibilised, taking away from a powerful way of teaching young people about the ongoing trauma and violence caused by colonisation, both in Australia and in Aotearoa New Zealand. But that’s another blog.

What I wanted to write about today, is the treatment of sex and sexual violence in the series. Again, there are really encouraging moments in the books where Ellie is represented as a desiring and initiating sexual subject. There are explorations of her sexuality as something that is purely physical and sexual, and also as something that is intimate and emotional. Conversely, there are also very tired representations of women’s sexuality as passive, where she often acts at as gate-keeper to her sort-of-boyfriend’s (Lee’s) sexual advances. Lee too, represents the dominant discourses of male sexuality. He is aggressive, always wants to go ‘all the way’ and often acts coercively towards Ellie, being angry and sulky when she refuses him. At one point telling her ‘thanks for nothing’, when she chooses not to have intercourse with him.

That aside, what agitated me the most was the book in which Ellie gets raped by an acquaintance at a party. At one stage during the books, Ellie and her friends are taken to New Zealand where they stay at an army base before returning to Australia. Ellie meets a young man when she is giving talks about the war at secondary schools and he invites her too the party. She gets extremely drunk and the man (Adam) rapes her. She describes trying to pull her jeans up but eventually thinking she just wants it to be over so she can go home. Needless to say Adam never asks if she is interested in what is going on. Ellie describes the situation:

“I was gone, I’d had it. And he changed really suddenly…it wasn’t working for me, I was just doing it, I don’t know, because I was expected to, I suppose, he expected me to…I felt too sick and drunk to stop him, to even try to stop him. I’m not saying I was too drunk to do anything about it, it wasn’t like that, I mean that’d be rape”

Which it was. But it’s never addressed further, her friend tells her she should have known better, because Adam was obviously a creep. Her counsellor tells her the whole situation is just her reaction to witnessing and living with the death of one of her closest friends. Throughout the following three books the rape is constantly on her mind, she frequently describes feeling dirty and ashamed, she says it felt like he attacked her, that when she slept with Lee she could feel his love for her but Adam made her feel like he hated her. At one point, while fighting with an enemy soldier she has a flash back to Adam raping her and has a panic attack. Basically, the series tells the realistic story of a survivor. However, as a child I didn’t know anything about sexual violence. When I re-read the books I didn’t remember the rape scene, although I remembered her having a sexual encounter with a gross guy. I imagine that 12 year old me absorbed that situation as just one of the many ‘risks’ associated with sexual relationships.

And it occurred to me that hundreds (maybe thousands) of other young people have read these books and thought the same thing, or maybe someone has read this and it has reinforced their own self blame and denial of an abusive situation. Or maybe it has justified a reader’s perpetration of harmful sexual behaviour, as something that they are not responsible for.  There are many implications of writing a narrative like this for a young audience with no analysis of it as an act of violence, of power and control.

But it also highlights the power of the media and of storytelling to change the way young people think about sex, sexuality and sexual violence. Teen fiction has a major influence on young minds and there is massive potential there to reach wide audiences with messages that promote positive, ethical and respectful sexual encounters and/or relationships. Those early years, before young people start engaging in relationships, are a crucial time to promote prevention messages and much research shows that young people want to know about how to have respectful relationships, how to communicate, negotiate and engage in sexual activity. Changing the way we write and talk about sexual violence or even the discussions we have with young people when they encounter messages like this, is a powerful way to help shape a violence free future.

Creating a violence free future

**Content warning for discussions of rape, coercion and sexual violence**

Sometimes it feels very difficult to look forward and imagine a world free from sexual violence. As a crisis worker, and a person who has to live within rape culture, it is often very challenging to be surrounded by the stories of violence, trauma and sadness that are so commonplace in everyday life. When I first started to do this work, I faced a huge change in my perception of the world and the people in it. Hearing about the terrible things that some people do to others and being faced with the reality of the impact this has on so many survivors, was in many ways too difficult to comprehend. And while all the stories I have ever had the honour to hear from survivors have been courageous and inspiring it is, as i’m sure many supporters will tell you, extremely affecting.

In my lowest moments it is hard to think it is possible to change rape culture, to eliminate rape and, indeed, I have had many conversations with people who would argue that rape is inevitable and there is no way to create change. I can understand why people feel that way, when we are surrounded by rape and rape culture. And also because it is difficult for those of us who do rape prevention to show and quantify for people what is not happening-which is after all what we are trying to achieve. It is easy to feel that way when I read Australian National Crime Prevention Survey stats which show that 14% of men and 3% of women think ‘It’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on, that 15% of men and 4% of women think ‘It is okay to put pressure on a girl to have sex but not to physically force her.’

But despite all of this, as Andrea Dworkin has said: “I came here today because I don’t believe that rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is.” Feminism is a hopeful politics and it has taught me that even when we are bombarded with the negative this does not mean that change is not possible. Sexual violence prevention work is for me, something that reflects the concepts of feminism more generally. It is about believing the world to be capable of being something other than it already is. And change is so achievable, I know it when I read things like ‘Where Men Stand: Men’s roles in ending violence against women’ by Michael Flood which states:

Compared to 14 years ago, men and women are now
more likely to:
• Agree that physical and sexual assault, and threats, are
domestic violence;
• Recognise the spectrum of domestic violence
behaviours as ‘very serious’;
• Agree that domestic violence is a crime;
• Agree that forced sex in an intimate relationship is a
• Reject the myth that women ‘ask’ to be raped;
• Support public rather than private ways of dealing
with violence and harassment;
• Report that they would intervene in some way in a
situation of domestic violence.

While the work of primary prevention takes time, there is a growing body of evidence that shows it is effective and we can change people’s behaviour in a way that operates in accordance with feminist norms of equality and respectful relating.



The ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’- Nottinghamshire Police Anti Rape Campaign

Nottinghamshire Police have launched a new anti rape campaign in time for Christmas, a reworded version of the well known story which now features a rhyming rape narrative. 


The BBC news reads: 

Helen Chamberlain, from Nottinghamshire Police, said she did not believe the poem was misguided at all.

“We have been heavily criticised in the past for focusing on victims and giving out persistent warnings to victims about keeping safe.

“This year we decided to try a different tactic and target the perpetrator.


And indeed, other Christmas time anti-rape posters (of which there are many examples) by the police have featured the ‘let your hair down not your guard’ and featured news articles telling women to ‘not become a rape victim this Christmas’ 

These ads have been (rightly) criticized for the emphasis they place on women to avoid rape, so while the Nottingham police posters present rape in a way that is deeply problematic, trivializing and probably extremely triggering there is merit to some parts of the message which reinforce that survivors are not responsible and perpetrators are to blame. Nevertheless, there are significant problems with the image overall, apart from the fact that 70% of people only look at the visual in the ad so for most people it will make no sense whatsoever, the image and the text reinforce worn out tropes of all women as potential victims and all men as potential perpetrators, something that rape prevention theory has shown to be ineffective (as well as being generally offensive to men and women). Furthermore, the tag line ‘don’t think you can take what you want because you want it’ is a terrible way to represent the violation of survivors’ freedom, self determination and bodies through rape, reinforcing a discourse which says women and sex are something that are merely objects, an ‘it’ according to the poster.

Finally, while it is reassuring in a sense that the poster aims to highlight that the police take rape seriously and prosecute sexual offences this is not really the case. Statistics show that one survivor in 30 will see their rapist convicted, and this is out of a pool of only 15% of survivors who report in the UK. If this image is aimed at perpetrators and wants to deter people from raping it won’t because consistent with other behaviour change campaigns (drink driving, etc) deterrence appeals only work if perpetrators think there is a real possibility of being caught, convicted and facing a substantial penalty. Which there isn’t.  

The most disappointing aspect for me is that Cathy Saunders, of Midlands Women’s Aid, said: “I personally think it should be withdrawn and replaced with something that has a little bit more insight and advice for women on how to keep themselves safe.” This is depressing advice from a specialist service, particularly because that message is always given to women, it does not work and strategies that focus on women work to depolitcise sexual violence, obscuring women’s understanding of rape as a social issue with structural causes and collective solutions (Vetten, 2011). 



Love and violence prevention


bell hooks’ work has been a major influence in my own feminist politics but also in my research more generally. Today I am writing about the ways her work on loving ethic can be utilised for sexual violence prevention interventions.

I will provide an overview of hooks’ work on love primarily from the following three books “All about love new visions, Men Masculinity and Love and Feminism is for everybody”. However, this being a big part of her scholarship I have drawn from other texts as well.

For me hook’s work lends itself very readily to feminist discussions of rape prevention and I am interested in three aspects of her work on love which highlight this link:

Her contention that we need to work from a shared understanding of love and work to practice this in all of our relationships, not only romantic.

Her work addresses the complications of love for individuals who have witnessed and/or experienced abuse and provides a space to consider how we draw a boundary between love and abuse which she considers mutually exclusive. She argues that “the myth that love and domination can coexist is one of the biggest lies told to us by patriarchy”.

Her work speaks directly to the reimagining of patriarchal and hegemonic constructions of masculinity, a piece of work that is fundamental to sexual violence prevention. Effective rape prevention engages men not as potential perpetrators but as allies in eliminating gendered violence, approaching men within a framework of love gives us the opportunity to draw on what many men already do in their relationships and working towards harnessing love, empathy and compassion in order to behave safely in public and private.  

Love has long been a foundational principle in anti-violence work, and is a key principle in many faith based schools of thought and in many indigenous communities. I am thinking quickly here of Martin Luther King’s speech on loving one’s enemies “hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”, of practicing loving kindness during meditation and of the principles of tika, pono and aroha in Te Ao Maori. These understandings of love are not equivalent, but rather I am using them to show that love may be a way for different groups to find shared meaning, in a way that speaking of gender, sex and sexuality (sometimes) cannot do. Indeed hooks reminds us that “all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic”.

The study of love in feminism and also queer studies has been influential in many ways. Romantic love as a social institution and a form of social control as described by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics, ‘love of the self regardless’ as described by Alice Walker and the complexities surrounding love, sex and sexuality outlined in Lynne Segal’s Straight Sex, are a small selection of a large field of theoretical work on love.

bell hooks’ conception of love argues that love acts to transform relationships of domination. Her theory of presupposes that everyone has the right to live freely and to live well. According to hooks love is a practice, love is not instinctual we choose to love but in patriarchal culture, romantic love is tied to notions of possession and submission. The idea of love catches you unawares, you fall into it and it renders you powerless. Luce Irigary speaks also of the way love is framed in language in I love to you, “I love to you means I maintain a relationship of indirection to you. I do not subjugate or consume you. I respect you (as irreducible).”

Because there is no school to teach us how to love, we do not work from a shared definition or understanding of what it means to love. And thus hooks provides us with a definition of love, care, commitment, knowledge, integrity and the will to cooperate.

Part of her work involves speaking of her own childhood abuse at the hands of her father and mother and also witnessing abuse between them, and the way she grappled with understanding what love was when she never felt as though she experienced it. I think her work on love is significant to discussions of preventing the revictimisation of people who experience abuse, as well as preventing before it happens, as witnessing abuse is a risk factor both in perpetration and victimisation. To have a clear understanding of what love is and is not, is to me a fruitful space for thinking and talking about violence prevention. An example of this is work done in Australia in a project called ‘Spreading the Love’ where one woman said:

“For us it’s almost like lump (love + hump) is the same as what anyone else would call love but because I guess my experiences have lent themselves to people saying that they love me and then doing stuff to me that I don’t want them to do then it’s kinda like twisted inside my head. So it’s almost like the creation of the word ‘lump’ gives me a way of expressing that without associating it with something that I don’t want to experience”. So love is a concept that can be used as a basis to understand one another and the way we wish to be treated, working together we can create shared meanings of love but also the behaviour we expect from others.

Finally, hooks argues that feminism has offered amazing critiques of patriarchy but few insightful ideas about alternative masculinity which, I would argue is something that is actually a primary focus of violence prevention. She argues that men are brainwashed to consider violence against women as part of male privilege and this stops them from seeing the damage that is done both to others and to themselves. She states:

“men who win on patriarchal terms lose in their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first forgoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others”

Utilising her work on love, helps us to provide an alternative to violence. We can encourage people to practice new positive behaviour as Baker (2013) argues “True prevention moves beyond stopping violence to promoting healthy behaviour. This requires positive and specific words to describe what we want to do”. To make love a verb, an act of doing, is to re-frame our behaviour and actions and orient them towards more equitable and respectful relationships.