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Sexual Assault and Restorative Justice

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Katie Gentile expands the psychoanalytic concept of witnessing to include the institution or the community body. She compares this model to the Quaker beliefs that hold the community responsible. It provides a way of addressing a rape culture in which all of us participate and, thus has a more effective way of addressing recidivism.

Although I have used some psychoanalytic ideas to translate the functions of bystander intervention it is important to note it is not built upon the traditional notion of psychoanalytic or clinical witnessing. Certainly psychoanalytic ideas of witnessing can generate a similar third space, a “live” or “moral third” (Feldman & Laub, 1992; Benjamin, 2009; Boulanger, 2012; Gerson, 2009) and can provide a way of entering another’s subjectivity (Benjamin, 1995, 2009). The bystander does enter into both the victim and perpetrator’s respective subjectivities, attempting to engage both if only in thought. Ullman’s (2006) use of Margalit’s (2002) idea of moral witnessing, where the witness reports on and documents “a reality of human suffering inflicted by evil policies” (p. 183) could be seen as a form of bystander intervention.

However analysts writing about witnessing do not always see or focus the impact of this witnessing on the cultural or community body. Many theories of psychoanalytic witnessing split off the offender, the identified “evil,” locating it squarely in the “other,” a third party, not-me, not-you, but “them” (Poland, 2000: Grand, 2002, 2003; Boulanger, 2012). Here the third is the body of accountability but it is disembodied within the relationship. No one is truly responsible. As observed elsewhere (Gentile, 2013a), this can function to triangulate, pulling the patient close through a presumed identification of goodness and distance from perpetration. We-together are not-them, not bad. Bystander intervention demands evil and goodness be held together within the bystander. We are all offender and victim and agentic bystanders. In psychoanalytic witnessing the violence is conceptualized as having happened outside the dyad (albeit potentially being re-enacted within it). The culpability of the analyst is typically missing in most accounts (see Gentile, 2013a; Gentile, in press b). For the bystander goodness or ethical relating has to be earned through the process of intervening and actively challenging a violation or attitude. It is an obligation that opens up the potential space for others to respond (Oliver, 2001), and a restoration of dignity (Ullman, 2006) to each party. This response-ability and restoration of dignity require holding people and institutional bodies accountable for what may be shame-full actions.

Because the Dear Colleague Letter was in large part a response to campuses not addressing sexual misconduct, it should come as no surprise that it holds to a black and white criminal justice approach to dealing with it. Although mediation is mentioned it is not detailed. Koss, et. al., (2014) describe a number of different forms of mediation. They observe that most mediation relies on the terminology of “disputant” which tends to indicate the main issue involved is really just that of different takes on realities, and not a violent sexual crime. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims to hold and address the needs of the offender, the victim, and their respective communities. This form of intervention focuses on both the individual and the social. According to Koss, et. al. (2014) restorative justice involves multiple routes for reporting an incident. Then the identified offender is invited to accept responsibility for some behavior. There is then an investigation. The repair stage follows where the victim receives validation and reparation for harm. Included are indirect victims who may have been impacted. The offender is engaged with counseling to help identified behaviors that may lead to violence and reoffending. This stage also focuses on identifying and shifting norms of the community. Restorative justice may also include “circles of support and accountability” (Koss, et. al., 2014, p. 247), having a circle of peers creates support for the offender while also outlining a form of sentencing. It is based in Quaker beliefs in transformation through community based interventions. Although accountability is also key here, the victim is not necessarily present or central. Instead the offender, his/her actions, accountability and tracking the ongoing behavior of the offender is the focus. Koss, et. al. (2014) note that this form of community intervention has proven effective at reducing recidivism among sex offenders.
In this model neither victim nor offender are isolated or left alone, and thus, offenders are potentially less apt to recreate the abusive dynamic. As Koss, et. al. note, it is oriented to the future and creating a form of reconciliation

Sexual Assault and Restorative Justice

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). Sexual Assault and Restorative Justice. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Nov 2018
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