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Punishment is useless, but that doesn't mean we should protect abusers from their consequences


icon: "strong (a photo of me in warm light with my hair down around my face, staring intensely into the camera in a defiant mood)"

Content note: general discussion of abuse, social fall-out from talking about abuse, and rape (no specifics)

Most of the caring people I have known rely on the same tool to manage any conflict: compassionate conversation. This is a fantastic tool for many interpersonal conflicts, and it can be life-alteringly good if you had previously only experienced antagonistic or competitive conflict.

However that tool is not a simple one and it simply will not run without all parties contributing respect, a willingness to be wrong, ability and willingness to put in effort, and a desire to create an outcome that is positive for everyone.

I recently got to listen to someone speak about restorative justice, as a concept opposed to punitive justice. I absolutely believe that punishment does nothing good, and that most harm can be best addressed with a focus on healing and providing solutions to the problems that created problematic behavior in the first place. I think there are too many times when we rush to discard a person rather than coming together as a community and explaining the harm they caused and guiding the person to safer behavior.

However, when we discussed it, all the solutions that were mentioned relied on the person who caused harm being willing to acknowledge that harm and work on a solution that would reduce future harm to the victim.

Unfortunately there are many cases where the person who caused harm does not care about the victim, or doesn't care enough to admit to fault or change their behavior. In these cases, a restorative justice approach will often result in further harm to the victim, because rather than doing the work, the abuser will lash out at the victim. They will call this person a liar, and often make up offenses to try and paint themselves as the victim. This happens so often that it has a name: D A R V O: deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.

Which brings me to another practice in social justice which can be skewed to cause harm: believing all victims without checking for truth. I am NOT suggesting that we EVER dismiss a claim out of hand. However, we need to do more than zero checking because if we don't, abusers get to control every situation. All they have to do is make up some shit about actually, they hit that person because the other one hit them first, etc.

When I say check, I don't mean for forensic evidence. I mean, talk to all parties who witnessed it and ask them to tell their version of the story. Then make your own decision about who is dangerous and who is not.

I once was told that a friend of mine, Cliff*, had raped someone. I was not at the place where this happened and I didn't know the victim, but a mutual friend, Mac*, told me (with permission) that this had happened because I had invited Cliff to a cuddle party, where consent is extra important. I was horrified that my friend Cliff might have done this but I also know that consent mistakes exist, and I hoped that there was some kind of explanation or at least remorse and reform.

So I reached out to Cliff and said hey, I have heard about a consent violation you did, can you explain please? Cliff then explained sort of vaguely and made it sound as if something relatively innocuous was all that had happened, and asked what exactly I had heard. I got permission from the victim via Mac and quoted the thing that the victim said that Cliff did (unambiguous rape), and Cliff did not deny it, but asked to move our talk to in person or via phone. I can't hear on the phone and I didn't have the gas money and time to drive to them so I said no.

I asked them to explain themselves further and they didn't -- they just stopped responding. (it didn't occur to me until later that they probably reacted this way to protect themselves legally) From this interaction I decided that Cliff was not a safe person and that it was likely that they did commit rape and then try to pass it off as something else when I confronted them. I waited several months, still hoping they would follow-up and have something worthwhile to say but they did not, so I unfriended them. Later I learned that they were not informing their sex partners about an STD they had, which I believed partly because they now have a history of consent violations.

Which brings me to my suggested community solution, which is listening to all stories and checking to get as much information as possible, then taking protective action if necessary. Whenever there is abuse, it almost always has happened to more than one person. In my opinion, patterns are the best evidence of someone being an abuser, but you can't notice these patterns without checking. And of course, in the meantime ask what you can do to support the person who has told you that they suffered abuse, and do what you can.

Then, when someone has been confirmed as an unrepentant, unchanged abuser, they should be removed from the social circle of the victim if that is what the victim wants. People don't have to stop interacting with the abuser entirely, but any gathering of the victim's social circle should not include them. This is not a punishment, but a protective measure to prevent the victim from being harmed further, and to protect others in the community.

What happens more often is ostracization of the victims, where people other than the abuser are continuously cut out of the social circle because it has become traumatic for them. Abusers should not get safety at the expense of their victims. We have to make a choice to remove the abusers so that we don't remove the victims by default.

*(these names are fake)

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Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
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Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.