What Justice Really Means for Sexual Assault Survivors

What Justice Really Means for Sexual Assault Survivors

What Justice Really Means for Sexual Assault Survivors

Making an example of Harvey Weinstein, recently sentenced to prison, sends a message to the community that tolerated such abuses for years. But it may provide cold comfort to survivors of his abuse.


When the notorious predator Harvey Weinstein was twice convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison, he joined the estimated 1 percent of rapists who are actually punished for their crimes. Making an example of him is certainly instructive to the wider community that has tolerated such abuses for years, but it may provide cold comfort to the survivors of his abuse. This is because survivors’ visions of justice often differ greatly from the resolution that the criminal justice system offers. Rather than simply punishing one particularly egregious offender, they want their communities to hold everyone who enabled his crimes to be held accountable. As Daniel, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in the Boston archdiocese, told me, he wanted some consequences for Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who had knowingly covered up hundreds of cases over decades. “I’d like to see him stripped of his position of authority, his big diamond ring and his scepter and all that. I’d like to see him do something humbling, community service that’s not schmoozing, not fun, not glamorous. They should sell his mansion and give the proceeds to victims.”

I have worked with survivors of violence against women and children throughout the 50 years of my career as a psychiatrist, and in recent years, I conducted in-depth interviews with a group of survivors about what justice means to them. My informants were 26 women and four men from diverse racial, class, and geographic backgrounds. I asked what would make things right—or as right as possible—for them and what they thought the consequences should be for the offenders and bystanders. Since victims are so frequently stereotyped as vengeful, I asked specifically about angry and vindictive feelings. I also asked for their views on forgiveness. For those who had had encounters with the formal structures of justice, I asked why they reported the crimes and what their experiences had been. From their testimony, it became clear that our adversarial justice system offers very little incentive for any survivor to come forward and face its rigors, because what is conventionally considered justice—punishment and monetary damages—is not what survivors really want, which is truth and repair.

Three major themes surfaced consistently through my interviews, when survivors contemplated what would bring them a true sense of justice: acknowledgement, apology, and accountability.

Every survivor I interviewed, and I daresay every survivor with whom I have ever worked, has wished above all for community acknowledgment and vindication. Survivors want the truth to be recognized and the burden of shame lifted from their shoulders, to be placed where it belongs, on the perpetrators. They want the crime to be denounced by those in their communities who matter to them, including the authorities of the law.

But this means that survivors must actually matter to their wider communities. It also means that their credibility must be judged without prejudice. When women or members of other subordinated groups come forward to seek justice, it quickly becomes clear just how little they do matter and how little credit is given to their testimony. With serial sex offenders, it often seems that at least half a dozen survivors have to come forward before their cases are deemed credible.

The wounds of trauma are not merely those caused by the perpetrators of violence and exploitation. The actions or inactions of bystanders—all those who are complicit in these crimes, who prefer not to know about it, or who blame the victims, often cause even deeper wounds. As Marie, an incest survivor, recounted, “When I told my family about the abuse, they turned on me…. I was literally asked not to go to a family gathering to ensure that the issue of the abuse did not come up. The women in my family were more loyal to the abuser than they were to me. That devastated me!” The harms caused by accomplices and indifferent bystanders are part of the social ecology of violence, in which crimes against subordinated groups are rationalized, excused, or rendered invisible. If trauma originates in a fundamental injustice, then full healing must require repair through some measure of justice from the larger community.

Beyond acknowledgment, a genuine apology can go a long way in a survivor’s healing. Once again, the survivors I interviewed cared more about apologies from the bystanders than from the perpetrators. In fact, most didn’t want any contact at all with the perpetrators, because they did not trust that any apology from them would be sincere.

Though rare, real apologies can be extraordinarily healing. Much more common, insincere apologies compound the harm, whether in the form of the traditional “politician’s apology” in the passive voice (“Mistakes were made”) or the conditional mode (“We regret if anyone was offended”). Apologies can sometimes lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, but social pressure for forgiveness can also be a trap for survivors. It is so much easier for the wider community to pressure survivors to “forgive and forget” than to do what it takes to hold perpetrators and enablers accountable.

Survivors’ visions of justice also centered on repairing the harms that were done to them, and preventing future harm to others. In other words, they wanted accountability. Most seemed remarkably uninterested in punishment for the men who had hurt them. They wanted the perpetrators to be exposed and subjected to public outrage, but they much preferred the idea of rehabilitation to imprisonment. (According to a recent nationwide survey, crime victims in general share these views.) Those who agreed to testify as witnesses in criminal court did so primarily because they thought the offender was so dangerous that he needed to be in prison, not because it would bring them a personal sense of “closure.” As Rose, a rape survivor put it, “I was afraid he would do it again, and if that happened I couldn’t live with myself.”

These priorities put survivors at complete odds with our current criminal justice system, for punishment is the metric of accountability in criminal law.

What would accountability look like if punishment and monetary damages were not the metrics of justice? We don’t really know, because we have never made a serious investment in reparations for survivors, reeducation for perpetrators and accomplices, or preventive education for the wider community. Survivors call on us to imagine new ways to promote public safety and hold perpetrators to account without caging or exiling them or denying their humanity. They call on us for a morally renewed community, where bystanders forgo the easy path of complicity with those who dominate to stand unequivocally with those who have been subordinated. Finally, they call on us for determined investment in public health and education to transform the culture that glorifies white male supremacy and to prevent gender violence by addressing its “root causes.” As Kate, a survivor of sex trafficking, explained, “Our culture fuels this. There’s a pattern of exploitation. Even if we locked up every sex purchaser tomorrow, there’d be another generation. So we need acknowledgment on a massive scale. We need the authority of the state creating a tribunal where victims’ testimony was important.”

A survivors’ vision of justice challenges all of us to begin dismantling our most deeply embedded structures of oppression and to create new structures where everyone is respected, everyone is included, and everyone has a voice. When a person has been a victim of violence, survivors’ justice challenges us all to think first of all about centering justice on that person, in order to make reparations for the harm and to provide what is needed for healing. Survivors need truth and repair—acknowledgment, apology, amends, and accountability—from their communities. When the community comes through with these reparations, the damaged relationship between the community and the survivor is healed, trust is restored, and a better kind of justice is done.

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