Navigating justice for sexual abuse survivors, when you’re a prison abolitionist and a survivor
December 19, 2017
By Joshua Briond*, AFROPUNK Contributor
I want to heal. I want to feel safe. I want us, as a society, to get to the point where we are more invested in the survivor’s healing than we are punishing the assailants. However, I’m not supposed to say that. I’m not even supposed to think that. I feel somewhat guilty, even as I type this. I feel guilty even though I like to think I’ve gotten past this. I’ve moved on, or so I think I have.
Yet, there’s still something in me that makes me feel some sort of repugnance when I look in the mirror, because I don’t feel any hatred anymore. I don’t feel the need for vengeance. But that’s what we’re supposed to feel, right?
What about those of us who were hurt by people who we know and love(d)? What about those of us who, for only god knows why, feel some sort of sick, cognitive dissonance type sympathy for our attacker(s) because they were also struggling under oppressive structures, and/or were victims of violence themselves? Are we not valid? Are we not worthy of advocacy and empathy?
We are socialized, or trained, to believe that healing and forgiveness from survivors is monolithic; that we are all supposed to feel, act, and talk one way. There needs to be a space where survivors can heal, where we can feel safe and secure in our bodily autonomy.
This is what people assume prisons do. People are taught to believe that prisons and cops are supposed to make us feel safe and secure. They’re supposed to reinforce the idea that criminalization is valuable because it does this. However, prisons and police don’t prevent attacks. We’re told that when our attackers are in prison we will be given a sense of closure, that we will feel free. But what about the others who are capable of committing these atrocities? How do we prevent it from happening to others or even ourselves again?
Humans are a product of their societal and economic surroundings. I want us to get to a point where we can humanize abusers, and “criminals,” of all forms.
And I don’t mean humanize them in a way that normalizes or even sympathizes with their wrongdoings. I mean humanizing in the sense that we can collectively recognize that everyone is a product of their environment, upbringing, and societal structures. Humanizing everyone to the point of understanding that humans don’t have to be, and won’t always be, this way. This means working towards decolonizing minds and bodies, so we’re not dehumanizing even those who have harmed us, in hopes that we can heal.
We must ask ourselves, what’s next after we otherize, dehumanize, and justly out abusers and assailants, isolate them from social spaces, and taken away everything they have? Where do we go from there?
Social isolation is not going to solve the prevalent issue that is toxic masculinity, cis-heteropatriarchy, and rape culture. It’s not going to make predators feel less entitled to the bodies they’ve already exploited or wish to exploit. The only way we can work toward that is through rehabilitation and radical transformations in societal structures.
At what point do we address the fact that our advocating for the imprisonment of, or death sentence for, all abusers actually acknowledges that we know and accept that these atrocities will continue to happen, and that we’re fine with it as long as they’re being punished in the end?
We know that imprisoning every abuser is an unrealistic, flat-out inhumane, and unsustainable idea. It is unrealistic because the vast majority of survivors don’t report their assault to the police due to marginalized people’s complex relationship with the institution of policing, and oftentimes even our complex relationship(s) with those who have harmed us. We must analyze the limitations of enhancing criminalization so that we can begin working toward focusing on how to prevent violence and how to heal from it; to work on the issues at their root instead of simply bandaging them.
We’re made to believe that those who are harming us are iniquitous strangers hiding in the bushes, rather than people in our lives, people that we love and trust. This is an individualistically malign notion that is reinforced through the advocacy of criminalization. It is used to enable the cultural thirst for punishment as opposed to rehabilitation.
We’re supposed to feel that it is acceptable to put beings in cages for life, as if that suffices for the harm that has already been done and the inevitable harm that will continue to take place due to complicity in inherently oppressive societal structures. Locking away a very small percentage of predators and abusers—many of whom get out and commit these atrocities again—while there is an ongoing culture of cis male dominance and violence that is normalized, acceptable, and justified, makes you realize that prisons are at most a band-aid for malfeasance committed as a result of patriarchal structures.
We need to examine the fundamental root causes for assault and abuse in order to transform them and make amends to those who’ve been on the receiving end of these atrocities.
Examining the complexity of violence, specifically why sexual and gendered violence is so prevalent and what enables this violence, is vital to our understanding of a system built on the fantasy of monstrous strangers. If we do this we might actually begin to focus on how to prevent violence and heal from it.
But how do we convince or even advocate to a survivor that the person who has violated and destroyed their sense of autonomy deserves to be rehabilitated; that they deserves a second chance?
How do we ask survivors, or those who don’t feel safe around cis men, to buy into this notion that they can trust men in communal spaces to protect and defend them, not violate or exploit them? How do we get to the point where we can depend on restorative and transformative justice and communal healing while centering survivors when men are reluctant to confront or even condemn the actions of abusers and predators who operate in their vicinity?
Punishment and revenge will not heal the harm that has been done to me. It will not take away the pain, nor will it make me feel better about myself when I look in the mirror. But putting forward a system that advocates for a radical shift in our culture, in our way of surviving and handling these atrocities and collectively preventing them, will.
I don’t want temporary healing. I don’t want a fleeting safety.
I genuinely don’t blame anyone for wanting those who have harmed and violated them or someone they love in a jail cell or even dead. That’s what we’ve been fed and told is the only appropriate way to deal with perpetrators of violence, enablers of patriarchy, and even non-violent forms of deviance. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that prisons do not, will not, and cannot protect us. Prisons have never made me feel safe.
My violator(s) did not spend a minute in a cell for what they did to me. I never came forward. I don’t regret that, but I do regret not making it known how they violated me. I regret going through the process of healing alone, which is something I’m still working through as I type this.
If I could go back in time and do things differently, I still to this day would not put my violator(s) in a jail cell. But what I would have wanted was a community, or even a single person, to show me a love that was sincere and much more nuanced than simply regurgitating the hatred I should feel toward my violator(s) and wanting them dead. A community that works toward protection and prevention, where survivors don’t feel it’s their sole responsibility to survive, heal, and search for a nearly non-existent justice for not only themselves but others who have been harmed.
The revolutionary potential in community is what makes me a survivor and an unapologetic abolitionist. We can’t continue delaying the conversation regarding the decolonization of our imprisoned minds in hopes for a more appropriate time. There is not an appropriate time when people will continue being violated and harmed if we do not confront the violent repercussions of cis-heteropatriarchal structures.
Our ongoing complicity in the prison industrial complex, and in the notion that assailants should simply be killed—which isn’t unfair or unjust considering the circumstances—will lead to more people being abused.
Exposing assailants, outing them, taking everything you can from them, and isolating them socially cannot be the beginning and end of exposing, correcting, and eradicating toxic masculinity and rape culture.
We also need patient and supportive communities equipped to deal with and prevent traumas. But we cannot seriously work toward that while women, femmes, and queer folks are not safe around the so-called revolutionary cis men who occupy spaces in their vicinity.
We must deconstruct minds so that we no longer acknowledge prisons as justice and policing as safety; so that we can collectively recognize abolitionism as prevention, care, and radical healing.
Abolition demands an accountability-based response to even the most barbaric forms of violence. I believe that is worth working toward.