Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Rape and restorative justice

  • 18 January 2013

While some friends and I sunned our legs on the back porch the other day, our conversation turned to mortality. We're deep like that. One woman recounted the tale of her almost-death which completely altered the way she lived her life. When she was 20, she had been raped by a stranger at knife-point.

When the police finally found the perpetrator, she discovered that he had raped other women in the area, and had murdered some of them. While he was being charged, she decided to opt out of the proceedings. They had enough evidence to 'put him away' for a long time, which is presumably what some of the survivors wanted. But my friend didn't believe that prison would rehabilitate him, nor that it would aid her own survival.

Her perspective, which came from her deep pity for the misery which led to his awful deeds isn't mainstream, but it might help us understand this disturbing graph which circulated in social media last week.

There are, of course, many barriers that discourage women from reporting abuse to the police. In a legal context, sexual assault is incredibly difficult to prove, often boiling down to one person's testimony against another's. Long and gruelling court proceedings are unlikely to deliver the remedy the survivor needs. Survivors can endure social victim-blaming, and risk retraumatisation in the process.

As an advocate of restorative justice, my friend recognises the shortcomings of the criminal system which does more to impede justice for survivors than it does to enable it.

Yet I somehow still feel vindicated by the law. It could be that I watched too much Law and Order in my formative years, or that the idea of giving up on the belief of legal protection is all too scary.

I recently reread Helen Garner's 1997 book The First Stone. In it, she laments the ease with which two young women reported an alleged incident of sexual harassment to the police. She sees the legal system as damaging to everyone involved in such a case.

While I admire the book for many reasons, I read it a couple of decades after it was published, at a time when it seems reasonable to believe that the law can remedy any injustice. I grew up in the age