There’s something that sits very uneasily with me about the death penalty. Not only a moral objection to state sanctioned murder but an objection to justice sanctioned murder. I find that justice has grown two heads in our esteemed ‘civilisation’ There’s the nice fluffy justice of taking to the streets to clear up litter, giving food to the poor, access to education and awareness raising about the environment. Then there’s the violent justice, often institutionalised in law and democracy, the kind of violence that is upheld as ‘fair’, that is ‘understandable’ and is ‘safer’ than the risk of vigilante justice or public disorder and uproar.
The Dehli rape is and was a sickening and terrifying act of violence, sparking significant and important protest and demands for justice and safety. The rape has been reported in dare I say explicit and possibly satisfying detail – only the exact details would match the extent of the protests and now the subsequent seriousness and finality of the sentencing. This brutal act is now marking a supposed catalyst for change in terms of addressing the treatment of women in India, challenging rape culture and attitudes towards sexual violence.
It’s not only the death penalty that sits uneasy with me – it’s something more, a sense that somehow the protests, the legislating, the new buses and streetlights, the widespread reporting and women finding their voices (great satire about victim blaming here) are all missing the awful, terrifying and blinding knowledge that this won’t make sexual violence go away. Nor will it really change the attitudes towards the victims of sexual violence or the attitudes that we the bystanders and activists hold ourselves.
Knowing the deep, deep danger, trauma and terror that sexual violence brings and threatens please know that I tread so carefully here, in the hope that I may provoke some even better and more robust conversations about sexual violence to make ourselves and sex itself safer.
I’m scared of rape.
I’ve been taught to fear rape my whole life despite living in a society where various ‘manners’ are taught. Fortunately the circles I’ve moved in have cultivated various levels of courtesy if only thinly veiled between the bodies and sexes. I know I’ve been lucky, so lucky, because we, all of us, women are more at risk of violence, regardless of status.
Research tells us that women are more likely to experience sexual violence than men – but many men also experience it. We also know now that most sexual violence, abuse and coercion is committed by someone that the victim knows and often trusts. I can’t help finding that in absorbing the details of of brutal rape and the high profile outrage, trial and sentencing of these abhorrent ‘monsters’ we find ourselves bound up in a drama. I’m beginning to suspect this drama is manipulated, to paralyse victims and potential victims, limit their liberty and set out regulations and expectations about bodies and justice that reinforce power dynamics in our communities.
Rape is in and on our streets.
I’ve been concerned that local people will judge Indian or at least Delhi culture too quickly and too sweepingly here. I’m worried that spectators and bystanders, even the activists will fall into colonial/missionary style attitudes, tutting over the way women are treated in other cultures and believing we are empowered, enlightened when really all we are is lucky. At the risk of banging an old gong, exploring holisitic and radical justice means embracing the uncomfortable mutuality of our relating to and with each other. Therefore injuries and violence in other parts of the world are a reflection on us and the reality is that sexual violence, abuse and coercion are here, are happening and will stay until we can be brave enough to not be so motivated by fear and power in our facing of these burdens.
Last week a young woman was raped by three men not too far where I was planning to run alone wearing headphones this afternoon, currently local government and police are caught in a media mud slinging session about the vulnerablity of children in care and the prevalence of sexual exploitation they are experiencing, freshers orientation weeks are coming under criticism for their attitudes to rape and rape associated ‘banter’ and a counsellor and expert in sexual abuse I work with says repeatedly that the only way things can really change if society begins to accept the risk and reality of sexual abuse that is happening in families and houses in our neighbourhoods wherever we are.
This risk and reality is a dark and terrifying place to go, partly because of how we’ve been taught to think and feel about sexual violence and abuse whether male or female, but also because of the legacy of how we’ve been taught to think and feel about sex.
Victims of sexual abuse are not only traumatised by the violence inflicted upon their bodies but also suffer lifelong trauma amidst the cultural and attitudal shaming and alienation we all feed and cultivate because of our own fears and dis-ease with sex and the abuse and violence of sex.
Will killing the perpetrators bring change?
Ministry of Justice figures this week triggered discussion and outrage about the high level of dangerous and violent crimes committed by offenders on bail or probation, providing a strong evidence base for the critics (including me) of our current justice system. I’ve a view of violence as a continuum rather than isolated incidences. Perpetrators are as caught up in these patterns as much as any victim demonstrating the flaws in our justice premises, and our expectations of what state sanctioned violence (from incarceration to the death penalty) can really achieve.
Most prison staff I have met will describe pecking orders within ‘correctional’ institutions that prefer and mistreat perpetrators according to their crimes. Always, sexual offenders are at the bottom of the heap, particularly those classed as child abusers, one prison officer confided in me in Manchester that no one, not even staff holds back when it comes to finding an opportunity to assault a ‘child abuser’ where possible.
Some of the most progressive thinking about how to address sexual violence and crime argues that lasting change comes when we ensure perpetrators personhood and dignity are not destroyed in the justice process. That the act of violence and the attitudes that motivate sexual crime and violence are separated from the potential of the perpetrator to manage their own attitudes and behaviour. Currently the shaming and ostracism that accompanies a violent and particularly a sexual crime as well as the vengeance style justice agenda is far more likely to lead to reoffending. The perpetrator is isolated and attacked and marked out for the rest of their lives as a despicable and abhorrent human being. It is much easier for a society to scapegoat rather than look at the wider attitudes and structures that cultivate violence and feed and facilitate the darkness of our nature. The sentencing of the perpetrators in Delhi is being seen as a triumph in many ways – finally sexual crime is being taken seriously – finally things will change for women on the streets of India – but while this model of justice may satisfy the family and friends of the victim in particular I doubt it will bring lasting change to the attitudes of potential or actual abusers. I’d guess it will just scare perpetrators into not wanting to get caught, and make the deception and hiddeness of sexual violence more complex.
Restorative justice models are profoundly radical and terrifying, because instead of killing someone and the risk and reality of the ‘something’ they have done, restorative justice proposes that we allow this someone to remain among us, in relationship with us placing distance between their personhood and their behaviour. This model forces them to remain accountable and unable to try and tell a different story. They are required to work on their attitudes and behaviour management, rather than living on the margins of society socialising with only other shamed and alienated ‘sin-identitied’ non-persons.
Instituted justice is sold to us via myth, sacred and scriptural texts and the philosophy of law as power, often translating into anger and vengeance. The re-offending figures, the victim mentality of most perpetrators and the pervading attitudes of entitlement tell us resoundingly that not only does this justice model fail, but mocks the very meaning, beauty and potential of justice.
An anti-oppressive vision of justice is a mutual, discovery relationship of respectful flourishment.
It’s about restoration and courage, of ourselves to each other, victim to community and perpetrator to community.
The death penalty, incarceration and the creation of an alienated, shamed non-person is the destruction of dignity, personhood and therefore community – our community.
We’re all affected by a death penalty being invoked, as a distraction from the reality of violence and criminality and the failures of our justice systems. Wherever we live in the world, we’re all affected by rape culture, we’re all bystanders, living beside and among sexual abuse and abusers, we live with the risk of victimhood and are not too far from an accusation of violence. We have to face our fears about sexual violence in order to reduce them and be brave enough to embrace what real, authentic and radical justice might look like.
This piece has taken me five days to write – not because of the little people and the snatches of time – but because I know how huge this is – how sensitive it is – and how not even a long blog post can do it justice – I’d be really interested in feedback and comments here on the blog.