In the year since the #MeToo movement took center stage, one thing is clear: Consent can still be a hard concept to grasp. What is consent? Is there a double standard that comes with it? And when an encounter is not consensual, what’s the best path to accountability and healing? In a recent VICE on HBO episode, correspondent and producer Isobel Yeung (pictured above) explores the conversations around sexual assault. A survivor herself, the episode is a harrowing look at the long-term effects of assault for the victim…and the assailant.
Highlighting one of the most polarizing ways to hold the accused accountable, Yeung takes viewers through an emotional “restorative justice” session between a survivor and her alleged assailant. Sitting face-to-face, the two discuss the alleged assault—a revealing and powerful inside look at how both parties have processed the incident—and what justice looks like for the victim. Of course, for many victims, restorative justice isn’t enough justice. But, as Yeung states in the episode, this avenue isn’t a solution for all. “But at least it’s providing the beginning of a way forward.”
Here, Yeung describes what watching that session was like, the complexities of consent and the path to redemption and healing for survivors.
If one thing is clear after the tumultuous Kavanaugh-Ford hearings last month, it’s that trauma from sexual assault is real, lasting and deep. As millions of Americans listened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s brutal, heartfelt testimony, many survivors were triggered to think back to their own, harrowing experiences. Hundreds felt compelled to recount their stories to colleagues, friends, family members, the Sexual Assault Hotline, and even C-SPAN.
Many of these stories emerged from women who for so long had resolved not to speak about their sexual encounters in public or even with those closest to them. Anxiety, self-blame, shame and fear are among the reasons that individuals stay silent.
That was the case for me. When I was 18, a man who I considered my close friend forced himself upon me. I didn’t understand what was happening until I looked around to see him with his clothes off, pushing my head towards his genitals. The details of that night are hazy and have long been a deep source of embarrassment to me, resulting in a resolution not to discuss it with anyone or to allow it to define my life.
At the time, I dismissed the criminal justice system as a means to any solution, knowing that I would have to explain, justify and relive that night in a public arena. I also had very little faith in justice effectively being served, which reflects thousands of other survivors, too. According to the non-profit RAINN, only 6 out of 1,000 rape cases result in successful convictions, meaning survivors are left fearing not only the humiliation of court proceedings, but also the high likelihood of their offender walking free.
Yet in this extraordinary moment of cultural reckoning, our lack of real options for addressing such experiences should not be ignored. How can we move on with accountability, healing and closure? And what should these look like? As part of our VICE on HBO documentary ‘Consent,’ we wanted to break through the heated political debates raging on both sides of this issue and search for solutions.
What we found was that the most compelling alternative to the legal system is a relatively new technique known as restorative justice. The concept is simple: to facilitate a dialogue between perpetrator and survivor, allowing both sides to talk openly.
In California, we met a woman named Alexis and a man named James (not his real name). Back when they were college roommates, they had been drinking heavily one night and wound up having sex. In the decade since then, James has maintained that this was merely a drunken incident while Alexis believes it to be rape. Alexis reached out to James several months ago to let him know that legal action was off the table, but that she wanted to talk. We watched as the two of them arrived in a dimly lit warehouse for one of a series of highly orchestrated sessions that professor and restorative justice facilitator Alissa Ackerman had arranged. For two excruciatingly uncomfortable hours in which they sat directly facing one another, they recounted their memories of that night almost 10 years ago.
Alexis broke down as she recalled flashes of James letting himself into her room and climbing on top of her. But she spoke more of how that one incident had impacted every facet of her physical and mental life. She felt disbelieved and outcast from their friendship group, eventually dropping out of college. She’s suffered from years of severe depression and at one point attempted to take her own life. Even now, she continues to suffer from profound PTSD, which has only been made worse by the inescapable news in recent months, weeks and days.
James also sobbed as he grappled to come to terms with his own behavior and how he had inflicted so much hurt. With the encouragement of Professor Ackerman he eventually stuttered, “It was rape… That’s not easy to say, both because I know what it’s done to you and I know, you know… there’s a flash of fear every time I associate with it.”
It was tense and uneasy to be a witness to this and I was mesmerized by the level of honesty, humanity and vulnerability in the room. It ended with the two of them standing up and hugging. It all seemed like a visible relief for Alexis, who was eager to continue the sessions on a regular basis. “This is a justice process that puts the survivor in the driver’s seat,” she told me. “We’re not really moving the needle at all until men start doing it, and your words have the potential to reach any other men and show that there’s a path to taking responsibility.”
There’s limited data on the long term benefits of restorative justice, but initial studies suggest participant satisfaction and a lower recidivism rate. Of course, that won’t be the case for everyone. In some cases, it is too soft an approach and is seen as excusing criminals or even giving them a platform, while risking re-traumatization for survivors.
Despite that, interest is steadily growing. In this nauseating time of very public anger, denial and partisan noise, it’s refreshing to think of an alternative reality where accountability is palpable. What James and Alexis proved was that in some of the darkest corners of ourselves, there could still be a chance for redemption, healing and repair.