When college student L. saw photos of her feet in a boy’s Snapchat, she felt scared. She had never consented to those photos being taken, let alone shared on a Snapchat account, where the boy was constructing a romantic narrative for both of them without her knowledge or permission. L.’s friends were furious on her behalf, threatening to beat up the boy who hurt her.

When L. realized the situation might devolve into physical violence, she approached Jasmyn Elise Story’s organization and requested a restorative justice process (locations for this story have been kept purposefully vague for the anonymity of the involved parties).

Story, an international restorative justice practitioner and the founder of The People’s Coalition, started the process of alternative justice—one that does not require the involvement of police or the criminal justice system but does require a commitment to accountability—through pre-conferencing with the victim and the boy who harmed her separately.

“Pre-conferencing are the meetings that occur prior to any restorative process before we get to the actual dialogue about how we are going to move forward,” according to Story, who has worked as a restorative justice practitioner since 2014. “We practice and we meet and we work through that conversation ahead of time.”

L. was concerned about the boy’s safety, but she also wanted to make sure the boy knew how much she hurt and scared her.

Pre-conferencing asks participants to answer five restorative questions that confront the harm caused: What happened? What were you thinking at the time? What have you thought about since? Who’s been impacted and how?

“The first step [to this kind of process] is to hear the survivor, hear their needs—and that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are doing a deep dive in their narrative and their story—but to understand what they are seeking and what does justice look like for them, and why they are looking for this particular process,” Story added.

After both students had gone through pre-conferencing, L. was told that she had options for moving forward. She could meet face-to-face with him, there could be a letter-writing process, or she could request time and treatment before the conferencing section of the process, where victim and harm-doer dialogue with each other.

“As a practitioner, I’m focused on what the survivor is going to need to be able to show up fully in the process that they choose, if it’s a face-to-face process, if it’s a circle process, if it’s a letter-writing process. My job is to figure out what they need to move forward and be able to participate,” Story shared.

The process can be customizable to make the survivor comfortable, Story said. The survivor might need time or mental health support, or they might request the harm-doer go through therapy or substance abuse treatment before the conference, depending on what the harm was and the needs of the survivor.

In L.’s case, she decided she did not want to speak to the harm-doer face-to-face and requested that Story brought her answers to the restorative questions to him.

“What came out was that he wanted people at home to think he had a girlfriend, and he wasn’t even thinking about the fact that taking pictures without consent, sharing them on the internet without consent, building a narrative that is untrue without consent, is something that is terrifying. But this absolutely did not cross this student’s mind, and I would say that there were social cues that the student missed,” Story said.

“Once this was clarified, the student was willing to be fully accountable to this, and he deeply understood that the extension of this process [to him] was really something he needed to be deeply grateful for as well because part of why this was being brought to us was fear of violence against this young man that the survivor could not handle being done in her name.”

The process ended up being really positive; the harm-doer took responsibility and made the adjustments that were requested by L. and everyone was able to move on. L. also requested that Story inform her friends that justice had been achieved by her standards and that her needs were being supported.

L.’s story is one example of a prison abolitionist approach to gendered harm, where harm against a woman is dealt with outside of the traditional criminal justice system.

A DIY Approach In The Absence Of The State

Recent public debates about police and prisons have brought up questions of the usefulness of police and the criminal justice system in cases of gendered violence. Critics of the criminal justice system and how it deals with rape and sexual assault point out that the current system retraumatizes sexual violence survivors, that police can often be perpetrators of sexual and gendered violence themselves, and that some survivors are incarcerated for fighting back against their abusers.

Story is a survivor of sexual violence and extremely open about their experiences with the criminal justice system and the ways it failed them.

“The first thing that happens in a traditional carceral justice process is intake, and the only thing that’s happening to a survivor is invasive harm,” declared Story.

“The gathering of a rape kit is a violent process, it is invasive, and depending on how fresh that physical harm is, it can be extremely, extremely painful. Then you have the fact-finding part of the piece which is even more invasive, where you have someone who is allowed to ask you whatever questions they feel relevant. It’s a completely arbitrary process that is to the discretion of whoever is sitting across the table from you.”

Story and other abolitionists are also critical of the lack of support survivors receive from the system.

“When it comes to support in America, in particular where we don’t have robust social welfare, what is provided to survivors is unbelievably poor. I’ll never forget the neon sheet of paper I was given with services I could tap into for a limited amount of time that the government was willing to pay,” they shared.

This lack of trauma-informed care and support for survivors inspired twenty-five-year-old writer Nylah Burton to start a healing fund for Black survivors who were harmed at Howard University.

Burton suffered sexual violence on the Howard University campus, and though filing a Title IX complaint against her attacker resulted in his suspension, the lack of care and support compounded by already existing mental health issues resulted in a derailment of her life. She is still recovering.

“The reason that I started the healing fund was because I knew first-hand how those assaults can completely destabilize your life in ways that people don’t even think about,” she said. “I remember after the first time that I experienced sexual violence, my mother was incredibly abusive to me because she felt it was my fault. And that started a chain reaction that led to me losing my scholarship [at Howard], being estranged from my parents, having incredibly bad relationship problems, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the same time.”

Burton’s experience with inadequate support and the subsequent unraveling of her mental state is common. It is part of what advocates call the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline.”

A study from 2004 by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network revealed that if the trauma of sexual abuse in girls and women is not resolved, it may result in the further development of mental health problems and behaviors that are criminalized.

“At the very least you need money to get through that,” Burton said, referring to her fund that provides survivors with a stipend of $5000 for mental health care.

Burton mentioned survivors might not be able to work for a while or that the assault might result in huge medical bills and impact a survivor’s career aspirations..

“Dealing with the trauma of sexual assault delays your education, it delays so much [of your life]. The first person who abused me, he graduated med school, and I am just now being able to start this journey of thinking maybe I can go to med school too, and he’s literally a doctor now. I feel a lot of resentment about that, and I know a lot of survivors who didn’t graduate college and don’t know what they’re going to do next and are financially insecure.”

Financial instability and poverty have been proven to increase people’s vulnerabilities to sexual violence. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the prevalence of sexual assault increases dramatically as annual household income decreases.

“The work of healing is so intense,” said twenty-six-year-old survivor Nisa Dang, when asked about structural issues she had to battle due to being a survivor. “Especially as someone who was unemployed and financially unstable [after the assault], it just added to the process of being retraumatized throughout so to be able to get a stipend to spend it however I need it would have been helpful.”

Story suggested that the difference between a carceral and a restorative process is who is centered.

“In a carceral process, the only reason the state cares about what happened is because the person who harmed you owes the state for breaking a law,” they added. “That means it’s never about you. It’s never about the harm that you’ve experienced. It’s never about the harm that your family has experienced. It’s never about the punitive damages that you as a survivor might take on, albeit paying for doctors, therapists, things like that. It’s solely about how the state gets repaid for having to go through this.”

Preventing Sexual Violence Without The Police

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), the vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators will not go to jail or prison, and a recent survey with survivors revealed that 20% were afraid of police retaliation for reporting a sexual crime.

There are issues within the actual police force as well: one study revealed that the NYPD undercounted rapes in New York City for years and a 2018 study revealed the lack of training of police officers investigating sexual assaults in Austin, Texas.

“The only thing that I ever wanted [after the assault] was the ability to feel safe again and to live in a society where it is normalized to discuss harm without it being litigated in court, without it being wrapped up in incarceration,” Dang shared.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), a grassroots organization in Washington, D.C., recognizes the need for safety for survivors without police. Originally a chapter of Hollaback, an organization that seeks to stop sexual harassment in public spaces, CASS works to prevent sexual violence without the involvement of police through workshops on masculinity and bystander intervention.

It is an example of abolitionist work that seeks to prevent sexual violence before it happens, recognizing that the social problem of sexual violence is more complex and wide-ranging than penetrative rape.

“We train local bars and restaurants in the hospitality industry on bystander intervention so if someone is being harassed or assaulted in real time in these public spaces, the restaurant and bar staff are equipped with the tools needed to intervene directly and in a way that does not involve the police,” stated Je’Kendria Trahan, executive director for CASS. “We also have our Rethink Masculinity program which is an eight-week cohort model where men and masculine of center folks come together to unpack toxic masculinity and rape culture and talk about building accountable communities.”

While CASS did not start as a prison abolitionist space, Je’Kedria said they have organized around abolition and focused on the prevention of sexual violence because of the harm the system causes survivors looking for support.

“By virtue of being in the decriminalization [of sex work] space, we were almost an oddball in the domestic violence and sexual assault world because some folks are very invested in carceral feminism,” she said. “Because we are now in this political moment of an uprising, it’s really important to make a decision about what side we are going to be on as folks are calling to defund the police. Let’s also think about how the money and the resources can be pulled away from the police and away from prisons and allocated into community-driven solutions that don’t cycle these instances of criminalization and harm.”

CASS is an example of abolitionist work that seeks to prevent sexual violence before it happens, recognizing that the social problem of sexual violence is more complex and wide-ranging than penetrative rape.

As someone expanding their experience as a restorative justice practitioner to other identity-based harms, Story has a similar perspective on justice and gender.

“There is so much gender-based harm, and for the whole world and communities to solely focus on penetrative rape, penetrative sexual assault. I feel like that does survivors a disservice,” they said.

In many ways, what survivors need to feel safe is a completely different world.

“Everything that [survivors] are asking for is so simple,” Dang concluded. “The idea that I could have a night out with my friends and not have to form a barrier between them and a man. Or that we could be in spaces and be free and that if we were drunk, that was okay, and we wouldn’t be shamed or humiliated or harassed.”

Nicole Froio

Nicole Froio

Nicole Froio is a Brazilian journalist and researcher who writes about human rights, books, global politics, pop culture, entertainment, mental health issues and feminism.