Victimization, and in particular sexual violence, undermines victims’ confidence and self-esteem. Victims often feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened. Fearing negative reactions, victims of sexual violence are often reluctant to report the crime to police. When victims do report to the police, the criminal justice process is often difficult and most sexual violence cases do not end in a conviction. Restorative practices (hereafter RP) have been presented both as a possible alternative and a complement to the criminal justice process, which could improve victims’ experiences. However, there is also considerable resistance to the use of restorative practices in cases of gender-based violence. Using a victim-centred lens, in which it is seen as a reaction to victimization that aims to address the needs of the victim and allow them to advance in their healing process, we examine RP. Based on semi-structured interviews with 18 victims of sexual violence in Canada who participated in restorative practices, we explore the healing potential for victims. We conclude that for victims of sexual violence, victim-centred restorative practices should be viewed as a tool for victim support and not only as another tool in the criminal justice toolkit.
Key words: victims of sexual violence, restorative practices, reparation, healing, self-esteem.
Sexual violence can have a devasting impact on the lives of victims. The criminal justice system, however, is often ineffective and incapable of successfully responding to sexual violence (Lessard, 2017). Rather than help victims, engaging in the criminal justice system is often difficult for victims and they feel victimized all over again (Campbell et al., 2001; Hansen et al., 2021). Restorative practices (hereafter RP) have been presented as a possible alternative or complement to the criminal justice process, which could improve victims’ experiences (Van Camp and Wemmers, 2016; Llewellyn et al., 2015; Roach, 1999). However, those working with victims have often been reluctant to embrace RP, especially in cases involving gender-based violence (Daly, 2016; Nelund, 2015). Emphasizing the need to protect victims of gender-based violence and the inherent absence of equality underlying violent victimization, these victims are often categorically excluded from existing RP programs (Nelund, 2015; Van Camp and Wemmers, 2016). While concerns about victims’ safety should always be taken seriously, some victims of sexual violence express interest in RP (Koss, 2014; Tufts, 2000). This draws into question their exclusion from such programs and highlights the need to understand the experiences of victim of sexual violence with RP.
In this article, we will examine the experiences of victims of sexual violence with RP and explore what it means to them. Following a discussion of the impact of sexual violence on victims’ self-esteem and confidence, and their experiences with the criminal justice system, we will focus on RP, and in particular, victim-offender dialogue. This is followed by a presentation of our research with victims of sexual violence who participated in RP programs, which use victim-offender dialogue (VOD). Many of the victims interviewed talked about the healing impact of victim-offender dialogue, in particular restoring self-esteem and confidence. This paper focuses on victims’ voices regarding RP in cases of sexual violence.
Short-term reactions to victimization include anger and fear, however, over time, these emotions can turn into long-term depressive effects, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and occasionally into post-traumatic stress disorder (AuCoin and Beauchamp, 2007; Shapland and Hall, 2007). Responses to traumatic events, such as sexual violence, include substance abuse, identity confusion, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and feelings of guilt and shame in addition to anger, low self-esteem, depression, and post-traumatic stress (Carlson and Dalenberg 2000; Ullman and Peter-Hagene, 2016). Victims of sexual violence often know their aggressor and being victimized by someone you know can be more distressing and confusing than being victimized by a stranger (Langton and Truman, 2014). Compared to women who experienced non-sexual trauma, women who suffered a sexual traumatic event were found to have higher levels of depression and had lower self-esteem up to two years after their victimization (Kucharska, 2017).
Self-esteem is an overall feeling of self-worth, and how we feel about ourselves often shapes how we interact with the world and with others (Oney and Oksuzoglu-Guven, 2015). Sexual violence can have a harmful impact on a person’s self-esteem (Van Bruggen et al., 2006; Kucharska, 2017; Osman and Merwin, 2020). Studies show that self-esteem is negatively correlated with mental health problems (Costa and Gomes, 2018). Self-esteem is considered a basic human need, which is essential for the well-being of the individual and their healing (Staub, 2003; Ten Boom and Kuijpers, 2012).
Self-confidence is about trusting one’s ability (Oney and Oksuzoglu-Guven, 2015). Interpersonal violence, and especially sexual violence, can have a devastating impact on a person’s self-confidence (Parsons and Bergin, 2010). Victims may question their ability to forge healthy relationships, and the absence of positive relationships with others can undermine victims’ self-confidence and autonomy (Littleton and Radecki Breitkopf, 2006).
Victimization, especially by sexual violence, is associated with a higher risk of multiple victimization, which means that often they have experienced many and different types of victimization in their lifetime (FRA, 2014; Cyr et al., 2014; Finkelhor et al., 2011; Perreault et al., 2010; Perreault, 2015; Van Bruggen et al., 2006). When people are repeatedly exposed to painful experiences, they may come to expect that traumatic events are unavoidable and that they are helpless (Seligman et al., 1979). This belief that one is unable to avoid certain experiences is referred to as learned helplessness (Peterson et al., 1981). Sexual victimization during childhood is often characterized by feelings of injustice and betrayal, especially when the victimization is by a family member, and these feelings often undermine their self-esteem, entailing self-blame and dissociation (Tamarit et al., 2018). Research suggests that adversities, like victimization, may be critical to subsequent risk of victimization, not necessarily because of their lasting impact but because they can produce a series of disadvantages, which accumulate and put the individual at risk of re-victimization (Mersky et al., 2018). The accumulation of victimization experiences (multiple victimization) is more important in terms of its impact on the individual than any one victimization, including sexual violence (Cyr et al., 2014). The more negative life events during the last year individuals experience, the more likely they are to blame themselves and, hence, individuals who experience multiple victimizations may be particularly prone to feelings of learned helplessness and lack confidence in their ability to avoid victimization (Peterson et al., 1981).
Feelings of guilt and its counterpart, blame, can intensify negative self-images as well as feelings of shame and self-doubt (Karakurt et al., 2014; Pemberton, 2019). Self-blame seems to be a double-edged sword: Although the victim assumes blame for something that is not their fault, in doing so they are able to maintain a sense of control and believe that they can reduce their likelihood of future victimization (Donde and Ragsdale, 2021; Davis et al., 1997; Janoff-Bulman, 1982). Based on qualitative interviews with rape victims, Hansen et al. (2021) report that for the victims to move on and start to heal after the rape, the women would often assume blame for why the rape happened, even if objectively the rape was not their fault. The authors submit that self-blame may be somehow reassuring to victims, as it allows them to feel that they have control over what happens to them and they can avoid it from happening to them again in the future: If one sees violence as random acts, then it could happen again at any time, and this is a frightening scenario for victims. The need to feel a sense of effectiveness and control is a fundamental human need, which may be threatened by the victimization (Staub, 2003; Symonds, 1980). The fulfillment of basic human needs, like having a sense of effectiveness and self-esteem, helps us to function optimally and grow (Staub, 2003).
Victims come to the criminal justice system seeking recognition and validation of their victimization and suffering, in the hope that the criminal justice system will condemn the offender’s behaviour and thereby vindicate them (Herman, 2005). Concretely, victims seek recognition by criminal justice authorities of their suffering as well as recognition of the offender’s responsibility for their suffering (Feldthusen et al., 2000; Pemberton et al., 2019). This may take the form of a criminal conviction of the offender or an acknowledgement by the offender of their responsibility. Victims’ demands for justice and accountability are not only about their need for safety and the prevention of revictimization, but also about their need for esteem and recognition from their family and others (Tamarit et al., 2018).
Victims want to be consulted and have voice in the criminal justice process (O’Connell, 2022; Laxminaryan, 2012; Wemmers, 1996). Ten Boom and Kuijpers (2012) suggest that this is a manifestation of victims’ fundamental human need for self-esteem and a sense of effectiveness. Information and notification by criminal justice authorities, for example regarding the progress of the police investigation, send a message to victims that they are valued members of society and authorities recognize their legitimate interest in the case (Morissette and Wemmers, 2016; Wemmers, 1996; Erez and Tontodonato, 1992). Supportive attitudes can help victims recover their self-esteem and provide them with positive feedback (Ullman and Peter-Hagen. 2016).
When victims find validation, recognition and support in the criminal justice system, this can have a positive, healing impact on them (Campbell et al., 2001; Herman, 2005; Parsons and Bergin, 2010; Wemmers, 2013). According to some studies, victims of violence who report the crime to police and pursue their case through the courts show improved self-esteem because of the support they received from police and prosecutors (Dobash et al., 1999; Sales et al., 1984).
However, not all victims of sexual violence find validation and recognition in the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice is generally less effective in sexual violence cases compared to other violent crimes (Brennan and Taylor-Butts, 2008; Daly, 2011). Rotenberg (2017) compared attrition rates for sexual violence cases in Canada, from 2009 to 2014, with non-sexual assaults. She reports that at each stage in the criminal justice process, attrition rates were greater for sexual assault cases than for non-sexual assault. For example, 43% of sexual violence cases reported to police led to charges and 49% of these cases went on to be prosecuted, whereas for non-sexual assaults these percentages were respectively 51% and 75%. Once the case is before the court, sexual assault cases are less likely to lead to a conviction than non-sexual assault cases (55% versus 59%). Similar findings are reported in Australia, England and Wales, as well as the United States (Daly and Bouhours, 2010). In England and Wales, for example, case attrition has worsened in recent years: Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, police referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of adult rape and serious sexual offences fell by 37%, and, in that same period, the proportion of rape cases charged by CPS fell from 57% to 45% (George and Ferguson, 2021).
Most victims of crime, however, do not report their victimization to the police: Less than one in three victimizations (29%) is reported to the police in Canada, and only 6% of cases of sexual assault is reported (Cotter, 2021). One reason for victims’ poor reporting is their lack of confidence in the justice system (Boateng, 2018). Lindsay (2014) conducted interviews with 128 victims of sexual assault in three Canadian provinces and found that 53% of sexual assault victims said they did not trust the police, and two-thirds said they did not trust the court process in general. Fear of not being believed and feelings of shame are also among the reasons why victims choose not to report sexual assault (Northcoot, 2013). The inability of the criminal justice system to adequately respond to sexual assault victims, has led to repeated calls for criminal justice reform (e.g. #MeToo).
We often take for granted that reporting is in victims’ best interests, however, this is not necessarily the case and the legal process can take a tremendous toll on victims (Hansen et al., 2021). There is abundant evidence that criminal proceedings can negatively impact victims’ coping, self-esteem, faith in the future, and confidence in the legal system (Cluss et al., 1983; Herman, 2003; Orth, 2002; Parsons and Bergin, 2010; Wemmers, 2013). This is often referred to as secondary victimization: After the initial criminal victimization, the individual feels victimized all over again due to insensitive reactions by others, including police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. In the criminal justice system, victims’ experiences of sexual violation are filtered through legal concepts such as consent, intention and corroboration, which distort their experience (Hansen et al., 2021; Smart, 1995). Practices such as cross-examination limit their voice and invalidate their experience (Laxminarayan, 2012).
Powerful predictors of secondary victimization are outcome satisfaction and perceptions of procedural justice (Orth, 2002; Wemmers, 1996). Procedural justice refers to perceptions of fairness both in terms of formal rules and procedures and interactions with authorities (Lind and Tyler, 1988; Tyler, 1990; 2005). The latter is also referred to as interactional justice and is comprised of information, which may be in print (e.g. a formal letter), and interpersonal interactions (Bies, 2008; Colquitt, 2001). Violations of procedural justice are likely to have particular negative effects on the victim’s self-esteem (Koper et al., 1993; Tyler et al., 1996). When victims feel that they have been treated unfairly by criminal justice authorities, they recover more slowly from their victimization (Wemmers, 2013).
Victims of sexual assault have undergone particularly traumatic and stigmatizing experiences that warrant a greater need for expression and understanding of their suffering. Voice is a key aspect of procedural justice and one that is particularly important for victims of sexual violence. Based on interviews with 190 victims of serious crimes, including (armed) robbery and assault, Laxminarayan (2012) found that victims of sexual assault were more strongly impacted by how they were treated by criminal justice authorities than victims of non-sexual offences. Specifically, she found a stronger association between procedural justice and negative psychological effects of criminal proceedings for victims of sexual assault, compared with victims of non-sexual offences. Proper treatment, including voice, can help to counter these negative experiences by providing victims with the recognition they seek in the aftermath of the crime. While these aspects are important for all victims of crime, Laxminarayan finds that sexual assault victims require a greater degree of procedural justice as an outlet for their suffering. Procedural justice has also been found to be more important than outcome when individuals have low self-esteem, whereas individuals with high self-esteem focus on outcome (Vermunt et al., 2001). Hence, the importance of procedural justice for victims of sexual violence may be exacerbated by the impact of sexual violence on self-esteem and self-confidence.
Besides impacting victims’ recovery from crime, procedural justice has been found to impact how they view the criminal justice system. Following a meta-analysis of 30 studies on legitimacy and police, Mazerolle et al. (2013) found consistent evidence that low procedural justice undermines police legitimacy. When victims feel that they are being treated fairly by police, this improves their trust and confidence in police and their willingness to report crime in the future (Koster, 2018; Wemmers, 1996).
While most victims do not report their victimization to police, this does not necessarily mean that the victim has failed to deal with their victimization (Hansen et al., 2021). Not reporting is not the same as avoidance, where the victim can go to great lengths to avoid any reminder of the traumatic event. Avoidant coping strategies have been linked to increased stress (PTSD symptoms) in rape victims (Ehlers and Clark, 2000). While avoidance is sometimes considered the alternative to reporting, victims can choose to deal with their trauma without necessarily reporting it to police. Victims may, for example, talk with family and friends about their victimization or reach out to community-based victim support services (Tidmarsh and Hamilton, 2020). A victim’s decision whether to report the crime to police is a personal decision. The aftermath of sexual violence leaves victims with having to balance their own and others’ needs and expectations (Wemmers, 2017).
The low reporting rate and high attrition rate, which typify the criminal justice response to sexual violence are, however, obstacles to social change and allow the stereotypes linked to sexual violence to persist. It is estimated that a third of women and a sixth of men in Quebec will be a victim of sexual assault in their lifetime (Ministère de la Sécurité publique, 2008). Sexual violence harms the individual and it also hurts society. If we wish to stop tolerating sexual assault, then we must find better ways of responding to victims.
Victims’ need for validation through speaking up and being heard has led some to suggest that providing victims with mechanisms to voice themselves, such as restorative justice, would be beneficial, and may be helpful in their recovery (Laxminarayan, 2012). While there are many definitions of restorative justice in the literature, it is often defined as a process whereby all parties with a stake in a specific offence come together to collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future (Marshall, 1999). The term restorative justice is generally reserved for programs which bring together victims and their offenders (Umbreit et al., 2006). Restorative practices refer to a panoply of programs, which are based on restorative values and principles, such as healing, empowerment, and respect for the dignity of the victim, offender and the community (Van Camp, 2014).
Any program that uses restorative processes, such as participation and dialogue, and seeks to achieve restorative outcomes, such as reparation, victim recovery and offender reintegration, is a RP (UNODC, 2020). This includes programs that offer victims an opportunity to engage in dialogue with their offender before or after sentencing. These programs are often referred to as victim-offender mediation or victim-offender dialogue (VOD). Restorative practices also include victim-offender encounters (VOE), which gather victims, offenders and community members together in dialogue. These programs bring together victims who suffered a particular type of victimization, such as sexual violence, with offenders who have been convicted for having committed the same type of crime. Hence, victims do not meet with their offender but with a surrogate offender. Such meetings can occur either one-on-one, or with a few (3 or 4) victims and offenders but always supervised by trained mediators who ensure that the process respects restorative values. These programs, which engage in RP after sentencing, do not use restorative processes as an alternative to the criminal justice system, but rather as a complement to it and a means to promote healing. Offenders come to the meeting, recognizing what they have done and taking responsibility for it, to answer victims’ questions.
Procedural justice may explain in part why victims who participate in restorative practices are often very satisfied with their experience (Van Camp, 2014; Strang, 2002). RP invite victims to be part of the process: They are consulted and have voice (Wemmers, 2017). However, victim satisfaction is also related to other factors that are not accounted for by procedural justice theory, such as being flexible, providing care, and centring on dialogue (Van Camp and Wemmers, 2013).
Victim participation in RP may be therapeutic for victims (Wemmers and Cyr, 2005). For example, using randomized controlled trials with victims of burglary and robbery, Sherman et al. (2005; Angel, 2005) found that victims who met their offenders in face-to-face restorative justice conferences, exhibited less PTSD symptoms in comparison to conventional criminal justice participants. Being able to talk about the offence and its effects may be therapeutic and empower the victim, allowing them to act and not remain passive while criminal justice authorities take all the decisions (Shapland et al., 2011). Regarding victims of sexual violence and RP, there is limited research, however, the available studies similarly suggest that victim participation in RP may be beneficial for their psychological wellbeing, reducing victims’ PTSD symptoms and stress (Gustafson, 2005; Wager, 2013; Koss, 2014). Koss (2014) reports that the victims of sexual assault who participated in RP strongly agreed with the statement that taking back their power was a major reason to select RP over other justice options. In addition, she found that the victims who participated in RP showed a decrease in PTSD from intake (82%) to post-conference (66%). McGlynn et al. (2012) examined in detail the experience of one adult who had suffered sexual abuse as a child and found that restorative justice was greatly appreciated by the victim who described it as a ‘turning point’ in their healing process (p. 228).
While RP seek to include victims, it is important to recognize that restorative justice did not originate in victimology but in criminology. Early restorative justice programs were initially developed as an alternative sanction for young offenders (Walgrave, 2006). This criminological slant is reflected for example in Daly’s work in which she defines restorative justice as ‘a justice mechanism to address crime’ (2016, p. 21). This definition frames restorative justice as a reaction to crime, rather than in response to victimization. While the difference between crime and victimization may seem trivial, they are different concepts, which trigger different responses. Whereas crime is anchored in criminal law and invites a criminal justice response, victimization focuses on the victim and it invites a therapeutic response.
The criminological approach, which underlies many RP, has contributed to resistance among several groups working with victims regarding the use of RP in cases of gender-based violence (Anderson, 2016; Daly, 2016; Nelund, 2015). Pointing to RP’s emphasis on healing relationships, these groups reject RP, which, they argue, aims to restore harmful relationships (Daly, 2016). To protect victims from further violence, in many jurisdictions these victimizations are categorically excluded from existing RP. Victim support workers and criminal justice personnel are often hesitant to inform victims of the existence of RP, but victims want to be informed, even if they choose not to use RP (Banwell-Moore, 2022; Van Camp and Wemmers, 2016). This limits the available options for these victims, and while the exclusion of cases of gender-based violence is intended to protect victims from secondary victimization, patronizing victims by limiting their choices may also contribute to a sense of revictimization (Wemmers, 2017). If giving voice to victims counters the perceptions of blame that arise for victims of sexual assault (Laxminarayan, 2012), then their exclusion from RP may effectively add to their suffering.
Given the resistance to RP in cases of sexual violence, and the tendency to exclude these victims from RP, it is important to understand victims’ experiences: Who are the victims of sexual crimes who participate in RP? What are their experiences? Do RP address victims’ needs?
The present study uses a qualitative methodology to explore the experiences of victims of sexual violence in RP programs. An exploratory study, there is no initial hypothesis and the research is inductive in nature. A qualitative approach is preferred because it allows us to identify and understand victims’ reality behind the RP process (Mucchielli, 2005; Poisson, 1983). Interviews were conducted in English and French. For this article, French citations were translated into English by the researchers.
Semi-structured interviews were chosen because they allow participants to freely express their views and concerns and allow the researcher to ask respondents for further clarification and explanations (Poupart, 1997). All interviews were recorded and later transcribed in full. The following questions were asked in the interviews:
‘I am interested in learning about your experience with restorative justice, but before talking about that could you please briefly describe your victimization?’
‘How did you come to participate in a restorative justice program?’
‘Could you tell me about your experience in a restorative justice program?’
‘Can you talk with me about whether your experience met your needs?’
‘Can you tell me about the effects that your participation in this program had on you?’
‘Did your participation in restorative justice help you in your healing process? If so, how?’
‘Did you choose to talk about your experience with your friends and family, and if so, what were their reactions?’
‘Was your case also treated by the criminal justice system? If yes, could you tell me about your experience’
‘Would you recommend restorative justice to other victims?’.
Interviews were conducted between July 2019 and January 2020. We favoured in-person interviews however, research suggests that telephone interviews can be used productively in qualitative research (Sturges and Hanrahan, 2004). Hence, we were flexible and agreed to telephone interviews or via internet when the participant asked for it. In all, twelve interviews were done in person, four were conducted by phone and two were done via Zoom/Facetime. The in-person interviews were carried out a location that was convenient for the victim, such as at the university, in the offices of the restorative practice provider and other local community-based organisations.
Considering the sensitive nature of the topics discussed, each victim received a follow-up phone call from the researcher about a week after the interview, to ensure that the participant did not suffer any difficulties because of recalling traumatic events during the interview. In concurrence with Campbell and her colleagues (2010), the victims in this study found the interview to be a positive experience.
Victim-participants were recruited in two ways: 1) with the help of organizations that provide RP services to victims in the Canadian province of Quebec and 2) victims who contacted the researchers spontaneously after learning of the research project.
To participate in an interview, respondents had to meet the selection criteria: a) have been the victim of sexual violence; b) be an adult (18 years and older) at the time of the interview and; c) have participated in RP within the last five years. Five years was used as a cut-off point to have sufficient flexibility to reach a wide range of potential respondents, while ensuring that victims’ experience with RP was relatively recent.
The researchers contacted five local, regional and federal organizations in the province of Quebec1, which offer RP services to victims of sexual violence, and asked their help identifying potential respondents for the study. These five organizations represent all the RP in the province that accept cases of sexual violence. If victims wished to participate in the study, with their permission, the researchers were provided with victims’ contact data. We do not know how many victims were contacted by these organizations. This resulted in 16 victims being referred to the study by three of the five organizations.
In addition, general information about the study was shared on social media and the researchers also shared information about the study with journalists. Hence, information about the project was available in the media and interested persons, who thought they met the selection criteria, were free to contact the researchers if they wished to participate in the study. In all, two people spontaneously contacted the researchers because they wanted to participate in the study.
Participants received $40 CAD for their participation in an interview.
Eighteen (18) respondents are victims of sexual violence who have completed a RP process. All the participants initiated the restorative process themselves and none of them had been actively recruited and asked to participate in RP. In terms of the RP programs, most victims (16) participated in a program in which they met with an offender who had been convicted and sentenced to prison for having committed a crime similar to the one experienced by the victim. These victims did not meet with their offender. Most of these victims (13) had a single meeting with the offender, which was led by a trained mediator. However, 3 victims participated in a program which brings together a few victims with a few offenders who had been convicted of having committed sexual violence. These meetings typically took place in the offices of the service provider. The remaining two participants did meet with their offender: One participated in victim-offender dialogue and the other participated in a circle in which both the victim and the offender were allowed to bring a support person with them to the meeting. In all cases, RP operated alongside criminal justice. However, in one case criminal prosecution was stopped at the request of the victim following a successful dialogue with the offender in which she felt that the offender, who had agreed to undergo therapy prior to their meeting, recognized the seriousness of his actions.
Almost all of the respondents (17) had experienced multiple forms of victimization in their lifetime and many (15) experienced multiple forms of sexual violence. Most victims (16) knew their aggressor and the victimization often occurred in the family context (12).
There were 16 women and two men in the sample. The average age of participants was 45 years: the youngest was 24 and the oldest was 68 years. Regarding their marital status, seven (7) participants were single, nine (9) were in a common-law relationship or married, and two were separated or divorced. Nine participants hade children. Respondents’ level of education was high: 13 had some post-secondary education and 5 completed high school. The sample is not representative of the general population. This is a qualitative study and the findings are not generalizable but they can, nonetheless, provide insight into victims’ experiences with RP.
Content analysis allows us to process and reduce the data by grouping it into recurrent themes. Using the transcripts, content analysis was conducted in two phases: First, the interviews were examined individually based on the topics that arose from the victim’s narrative. This vertical analysis allowed us to identify the different themes emerging from the same interview.
Second, a cross-sectional or horizontal analysis was carried out in order to identify the recurring themes that emerged across all participants. This allowed us to see the convergences and distinctions across interviews for each theme and identify key elements of victims’ RP experiences. This synthesis work is essential to the production of research since it allows the researcher to interpret the data first and then to compare the results to the scientific literature (Paillé and Mucchielli, 2003).
The victims in this study who participated in RP are diverse: They include young adults and seniors; some knew their offender while others did not; some participated in RP soon after their victimization while others did so several years after the victimization occurred. Despite their different backgrounds, when the victims of sexual violence in this study chose to participate in RP, they did so for themselves and in their own time.
I was ready at that time, to go and consult… Because I took the steps, I went to read on the Internet ‘restorative justice’. (...) It spoke to me, I said to myself ‘well, I think I'm here’, to take a step or in any case, at least, try to make a step (...) So I was ready. For me it was one more step to try to be better with me and then to free myself from this crime that I suffered. (Alexandre)
But I said to myself I'm trying it. I will try it because I don't have any other options, I can't see other solutions to help me get out of it, and then I felt it was the right time anyway. (Laurence)
I decided to move forward with that (RP) because, also, I arrived like at a dead end, I felt that I had to do something to get out of this ... I felt that going to visit the wounds was good, but it took something else to get me out of all this, I don't know what, but ... Because I, it seems like the reason to live, my reason to live, is to be free, so I went where I could …. this is what I did. (France)
Victims’ discourse about their RP experiences focused largely on how it impacted them personally. More specifically, confidence was a dominant theme that emerged from victims’ descriptions of their experiences with RP. Our analysis of victims’ narratives reveals that they use the notion of confidence in three different ways: 1) confidence in the RP process; 2) self-esteem and self-confidence; 3) confidence in others. In the following, these ideas will be developed using victims’ words to better understand their meaning and relevance in the context of RP.
Victims spoke of their confidence in the RP process and in the mediators. It is important to note that all victims met with program staff one or more times prior to engaging in victim-offender dialogue. These preparatory meetings allow staff to inform victims about what to expect during the process, assess expectations and address any concerns or questions. As a result of these preparatory meetings, many victims had confidence in the RP process as they entered the victim-offender dialogue.
I would say that I felt safe, and I felt confident, and after that I said to myself 'Well, I will let myself be surprised for what happens next’. (Emma)
So I would be accompanied and it would be done with respect and I felt confident. I thought yeah, why not? (Laurence)
Well, I really had confidence … It was really one of my expectations that the face-to-face meeting could repair the victim and the aggressor, not just one or the other, but both, you know. (Anne-Marie)
In addition to confidence in the process, victims also expressed confidence in the program staff.
I felt confident, I knew that if I needed help, there were therapists, that there were psychologists … I think I’ve been well supervised, well prepared, and the people who are involved there, they are human, they are people who know what individuals are exposed to and to what they will go through, so they are people with heart. (Alexandre)
My voice was being heard in the system, finally, like, since this rape happened it was the first time my voice was heard, and given importance. And it was like really, really meaningful … Your voice does matter, like, ‘how can we make this feel as safe and empowering and healing for you as possible’. So, yeah it was deeply meaningful and healing every step of the way. (Jenny)
The people present at the meetings with offenders also gained victims’ confidence and were able to put them at ease.
The one who was next to me, the woman, I found her to be attentive … She gave me confidence, she welcomed me into what was going on. In a way, I felt that she protected me a bit as well. (Marie-Ève)
Victims’ confidence in the RP process and staff is noteworthy considering victims lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.
So, I did the preliminary trial 2which like was a really hard experience you know, just like, being questioned about such a vulnerable experience and, being met with such skepticism from the defense. And so after that happened, like they had gathered that there’s enough evidence to go to a criminal trial and that would probably happen in like a year, and at that time, I just like put the whole system out of my mind and was really just focus on my own healing …. And I just started agreeing less and less and less with the criminal justice system like, firstly I didn’t want to participate in another trial, and secondly, I just didn’t have any faith that if it was like a quote-unquote ’success’, and my assailant ended up incarcerated like I had no faith that that would be the thing that would like, end rape in our world and assure that he wasn’t going do it again like, shape him up to be a good man in our world. (Jenny)
Sexual victimization can have many consequences for victims and impact both how they feel about themselves, their self-esteem, as well as how they relate to others, their confidence. In particular, sexual assault victims often know their offenders, which makes this type of victimization all the more difficult for the victim. Many of the victims in this study experienced assault at the hands of a family member when they were a child. As Julie, a victim of incest points out, victimization by someone you trust is confusing and causes victims to doubt themselves:
And he (the offender) is a someone you trust, someone close, so you don't know if it's good or if it's not good. (Julie)
It was the negative effects of the rape that made me act that way... It led to many losses at the relational level: loss of confidence, self-esteem. (Alexandre)
Devastated by their victimization, several of the victims mentioned that prior to engaging in RP, they had received therapy to deal with the consequences of sexual violence. RP was an important step on their path to recovery. The RP process allowed victims to directly address many of the negative consequences of sexual violence, such as loss of self-esteem, self-blame and self-doubt. Through the process, victims began to feel good about themselves and gained confidence in their abilities. It allowed them to go further in their healing process than they were able to do in therapy. Engaging in the RP process, victims were able take the next step on their personal healing journey.
You know, with the years of therapy I've done, I realized how I had been hurt … my sexuality, which (at the time of the victimization) hadn't yet taken shape … You know … I had relationships … a lot of sexual relationships to try and repair myself in some way, or it was an illusion to heal myself through acting out you could say ... By having a lot of partners and having sex in illicit places, like toilets, parks, cloakrooms … Then I did a lot of therapy but the acting out did not decrease, did not decrease, did not decrease ... I cheated on my partners and then I told my partners ... Since I did restorative justice, I tell you, it's been one year and I have not acted out … I'm so happy with this process! Proud of myself! I have so much more self-esteem … I trust myself too, for the first time. (Alexandre)
And it led me … that's it, to the next steps … Well, the next steps have not moved, but at least, it brought me to this point … Then, you know, I saw positive consequences in terms of employment, and other steps …. It gave me a lot of confidence. (Catherine)
Victims emphasized how important dialogue with the offender was for their healing process. It allowed them to open up and be honest with themselves, to understand what happened, to accept themselves, to see their humanity and the humanity of the other.
It allowed me to open up … Yes, to express myself and then, you know, to accept, to understand that yes, it happened and then it does not make you a bad person. (Léa)
It was thanks to restorative justice … It allowed me to get through this … I could not settle my accounts with my uncle (the victim’s offender was deceased) … Well, I asked questions, he (the surrogate offender) was speechless … because it went very far psychologically ... My God … that I liberated myself, that's it, it was total liberation ... It freed me because I asked a lot of questions. (Béatrice)
It's paradoxical, but it has something very, very soothing. I'm not too sure what's so soothing, but there's something going on, anyway, in the link .... Well, that's also it, it's to meet the other through his suffering, it's to meet humanity in the other ... It's like feeling like ... that we all come from the same place and then that ... (the victim thinks) It's like giving life a chance. It's really, it's really just that. Then whether this life, whether it is mine, or that of the inmates, it has the same value. (Lise)
These quotes highlight the important role that RP played in victims’ healing process. Victimization violates many of the victim’s beliefs, such as the belief that we can trust others and that we are safe, and the world is just. RP helps restore victims’ belief in themselves and others.
Just amending a lot of beliefs that were broken through trauma and like restoring those, that was a big need met. (Jenny)
So it helped me to understand .... For me, it relieved my conscience. Yes. It confirms that we do not come into the world evil, but that it is the circumstances of life that push us to take actions. (Anne-Marie)
How a person feels about themselves affects how they interact with the world. This was recognized by many victims as they spoke of how RP impacted their self-confidence and changed the way they interact with others.
All the consequences that occurred, due to that (the victimization) … my self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and everything. I ran away, I was psychologically abused, the intimidation, and, you know, the bad decisions I made.
Because I've been dragging a ball and chain all my life, and then after my forty-two years of silence, well with restorative justice or whatever, very slowly the ball was gone. After that it was the chain. Then, when I was done with restorative justice, well, the ring came off, and then I left free of my ring, you know …
It allowed us to free ourselves, one and other. And to see yourself as being human and not, like, wanting to rip your head off or want … That gives you a lot of self-confidence. It means that if I trust myself, I can trust other people, you know. (Benoît)
Sometimes, these changes in the victim were remarked upon by others:
I have a hard time trusting and all that ... He (the victim’s employer) noticed that, among other things, I was much more confident, much more self-confident as a result of the process ... that confidence, allowed us to go further. And . I went further…. Me, it really gave me more confidence to be able to name things and even be able to deal with the consequences of my post-traumatic stress symptoms. Then well, by the time I was there, I really wasn’t angry, I was more into understanding … It took away a lot of the anger.(Catherine).
Given the intimate nature of sexual assault, it is hardly surprising that victims talked about how it affected their interpersonal relationships. For many victims, the impact of RP on their interpersonal relationships was an important part of their experience. Participation in RP helped them to trust others and they felt that this changed their intimate relationships in a positive way.
All those realizations … Then, you know, like, just becoming aware with respect to trust, completely changed the relationship as a couple, because now it's like: well no, I can have trust. (Anne-Marie)
For sure, it (RP) brought me a lot …. It has had consequences in many, many spheres of my life, but among others with him (the victim’s partner of 10 years), you know… To suffer sexual abuse, the first consequences are often its impact on your sex life …. So that, you know, for me, that, it …. that part of my life there, it was always really an ordeal, it always has been problematic ... In a long-term relationship like the one I have right now, well that's been extremely difficult, you know. (Maude).
Well, to trust men, to have a healthier relationship now … I told myself that I never wanted to have children. It’s like I can have confidence in life … I can choose who can look after my children. I have power over that. I don't talk to my parents anymore. I won't have my parents look after my child. Yeah, it gave me back power, it comes back to that again’ (Marie-Ève)
Our findings highlight the importance of confidence for victims and how their participation in RP allows them to regain confidence in themselves and others. Engaging in a dialogue with an offender provided victims validation and allowed them to trust themselves. Sexual violence can have a profound impact on victims’ relationships with others and in particular their intimate relationships (Carlson and Dalenberg, 2000; Langton and Truman, 2014). According to victims, the confidence they gained from their RP experience changed victims and their interpersonal relationships. RP allowed victims to work on how they relate to others.
Victimization is disempowering, as can be the criminal justice process, which often fails to recognize victims as persons before the law (Symonds, 1980; Hagan, 1983). The findings of this study suggest that the disempowerment experienced by victims may be why RP, which offer agency to victims, are beneficial. Regaining a sense of power and control is an essential part of victims’ healing process and promotes post-traumatic growth (Berger, 2015). According to the victims in this study, they participated in RP to advance in their own healing process. They used the safe environment that RP offered to explore their abilities and regain their sense of power and confidence. Victims appreciated RP because it allowed them to find a sense of control over their lives after it had been shattered by their victimization. Victims felt they could trust their abilities, which was empowering for them. In accordance with Laxminarayan (2012), RP provided victims with a mechanism for voice, which according to the victims themselves, was helpful in their recovery.
Our findings appear to support O’Mahoney and Doak’s (2017) suggestion that empowerment theory can help us understand how RP benefits victims of sexual violence. In accordance with Zimmerman (1995), O’Mahoney and Doak argue that empowerment is both a process and an outcome. As a process, empowerment offers those lacking control (i.e. crime victims) participation and the ability to control their lives. As an outcome, empowerment is ‘associated with a shift in a person’s state of mind, such as gaining a sense of worthiness or competency, coupled with personal power and control’ (p. 60). Through their experience with RP, the victims in this study became empowered and began to recognize that they can influence and control events and decisions.
Use of RP is highly controversial among researchers and practitioners working with victims of gender-based violence because of the power imbalance, which often characterises such violence. As we saw, victims of sexual violence have often suffered multiple victimization, which makes them especially vulnerable and at risk of revictimization (Cyr et al., 2014; Finkelhor et al., 2011; Perreault et al., 2010; Perreault, 2015). Hence, concerns that victims of gender-based violence will be coerced by the offender and ultimately re-victimized are legitimate (Ehret, 2020; Anderson, 2016; Nelund, 2015). However, to categorically exclude these types of victimisations from RP is disempowering and essentially robs victims of an opportunity.
This does not mean that power imbalances are not important and should be ignored. It is important to establish certain preconditions, such as victims’ safety, before victims engage in RP (Wemmers and Cousineau, 2005). The victims in this study were all at a stage in their lives where the violence had stopped and, while they sometimes continued to feel vulnerable and experienced trauma symptoms, they had begun their personal healing journey. Many of them had engaged in therapy, sometimes for an extended period of time, and they were working on coming to terms with their victimization. In addition, the victims in this study did not participate in RP to restore their harmful relationship with their aggressor. Most did not even meet with their offender and met with a surrogate instead, and while this was still not easy, it was generally considered less daunting than meeting their offender. RP was a step on their healing journey, and one that allowed them to actively engage in the process and overcome their fears.
Victims entered the dialogue with the offender from a position of strength. They were supported and believed by the program staff. Their experience was never doubted or brought into question. This gave them confidence in the process and the people they worked with. Victims felt supported when they met with the offender. Regardless of whether they met their offender or an offender who had committed a similar offence, the offenders whom victims met with recognized their wrongdoing and did not shift blame to the victim. This is a vital distinction from criminal justice where an accused will often deny responsibility, and the prosecution is tasked with proving the offender’s guilt while the defence tries to undermine the victim’s credibility. It is important for victims’ recovery process that they feel supported (Strobl, 2010). If victims do not feel supported, this may result in secondary victimization (Campbell et al., 2001; Wemmers, 2013). RP occurred in a context that was caring and victim-centred. It offered victims a response to their victimization that was supportive and built confidence.
RP gives victims control over their participation, which is significant for their confidence and sense of control over their lives. Participation is voluntary and victims can choose to enter and exit the RP process at any time. In contrast, the criminal justice system, which relegates victims to witnesses, can be disempowering for victims of sexual violence (Herman, 2005). Once a victim reports their victimization to police, they are not fully in control of what happens next. This is not a critique of the criminal justice system but simply recognizing that criminal justice, which works to punish and limit the individual freedom of the accused, cannot be regulated by the same rules as RP. Unlike the criminal justice system, where the prosecutor and the defence decide whether the victims will have an opportunity to speak during the trial, victims are given the opportunity to participate in RP. The agency it offers to victims, is a clear advantage of RP.
While RP is often portrayed as an alternative to criminal justice (Fattah, 1998; Walgrave, 2006), this is not necessarily how victims view it. RP is not a competitor for criminal justice but its complement (Dignan, 2002; Van Camp and Wemmers, 2016). RP and criminal justice have different objectives: The focus of RP is healing whereas criminal justice focuses on punishment (Zehr, 2002). Any program that uses RP processes to achieve restorative outcomes such as victim recovery can be considered RP (UNODC, 2020). This provides RP with a degree of flexibility, which criminal justice cannot offer. Many of the victims in this study participated in RP with an offender who had been sentenced to prison for having committed an offence that was similar to what they experienced but was not the victim’s aggressor. This illustrates the complementarity between RP and criminal justice and it reminds us that victims do not necessarily have to meet with their offender for RP to be of benefit to them. RP provides new and additional avenues to meet the needs of victims.
Victim-centred justice is based on a human rights approach. According to Skelton (2019), a human rights approach highlights the balance of rights between people (victims and offenders) as well as the vertical relationship between victims and the state (i.e. the criminal justice system). Recognizing the dignity and equality of victims, this approach emphasizes the importance of their basic needs and rights, including their need for reparation (Finn, 2013; Goodey, 2005). Applying this approach to RP shifts the focus to victim recovery and empowerment: Victim-centred RP is a reaction to victimization, which aims to address the needs of the victim and allow them to advance in their healing process. It addresses the many beliefs that were broken through the trauma, especially their belief in themselves.
The confidence victims expressed in the RP process stands in sharp contrast to the lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, which is endemic among victims of sexual violence (Conseil du statut de la femme, 2020; Lindsay, 2014; Prochuk, 2018). Victims are unlikely to report sexual victimization to police and their lack of collaboration is in part due to a lack of confidence or trust in criminal justice (Koster, 2018; Laxminarayan, 2012). Without necessarily being an alternative to criminal justice, RP does offer a way to provide support to victims and grow their confidence, which may improve their trust in criminal justice and encourage them to report their victimization to police (Bradford, 2011).
A strength of this study is that it draws from victims’ narratives of sexual violence and their experiences in restorative justice programs, and provides a rich and nuanced portrait of victim-offender dialogue. More specifically, it shows the words of victims who chose to participate in RP and it documents part of their healing journey as they regain confidence in themselves and others. It is important to note the therapeutic value of RP for victims, even though the majority of victims in this study did not meet their own abuser. However, the findings are based on a small, qualitative study and are not generalizable to other victims. Further research is needed in order to identify which elements of the RP process are essential for victims’ healing process.
Victim-centred restorative justice should be viewed primarily as a tool for victim support rather than focus on whether or not it can be used as an alternative to criminal justice in cases of sexual violence. This views RP as a response to victimization, rather than a reaction to crime. When RP aims to promote victim recovery, it can be an important service for victims. Besides support, it allows victims to find their voice and advance in their healing process, as they grow their self-esteem and build confidence in their abilities. If we wish to stop tolerating sexual assault, then we must find better ways of responding to victims. It is time to listen to victims and develop innovative responses, which meet their needs and promote healing, while respecting the rights of the accused.
This study was funded by the Fonds d’aide victimes d’actes criminels, of the Ministry of Justice, Quebec, Canada.
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