I don’t remember all the faces.
It’s a fact I get stuck on sometimes. Can I be traumatised if I can’t even recall all their faces? Shouldn’t I be able to recount every second of being raped in vivid detail? I can’t. I can only picture two of the men, and one of them is hazy.
I’m struggling to write these next details, but it’s important to understand the context of the violence. The first time I was raped, I was fifteen. I was picked up, literally carried, by three men into a bedroom at a party while I struggled. When they shut the door, leaving him and I in the darkness, I knew what would happen to me. I remember his face and his name like they are my own.
Another guy. First year of university. I invite him over, which I know would do me no favours if I ever tried to report it. When I go to get the morning after pill, I answer “yes” when they ask their standard question about rape. The nurse won’t give me my medication or let me leave. She wants to call the police and only settles for social services when my friend and I have argued for an hour. I have never felt less in control. It’s like being raped again, and she hasn’t even touched me.
The next three times are all similar. They involve men who have paid me for sex, which could be enough of a reason for you to click off of this article altogether if you’re the kind of person who believes that means I’m either asking for it or unrapeable. I sort of remember the first guy, but not enough to turn him away if he showed up at the brothel where I work. The other two I cannot picture at all. The stories are all similar. They are nice until I say no to something, and then it doesn’t matter what I say at all.
I have never reported my rapists to the police. I know the full legal names of two of them. I have medical evidence and witnesses for some of them. I have the men at my brothel on CCTV. I also know that my case would stand no chance in the Criminal Justice system, and that, even if there was a 100% chance of conviction, I don’t want my rapists to go to prison.
I am not a particularly forgiving person. My position is nothing to do with seeing the good in people, or letting go of what has happened to me, or even being able to move on without court dates hanging over my head. I have unpicked my experiences night after night and they have never felt like something I could leave behind me. Instead, my aversion to sending my rapists to prison comes from a place of pain.
These men have harmed me. I know that if the criminal justice system actually prosecuted rapists and each of them was sent to prison, I might feel a sense of relief or vindication or satisfaction. But deep down I also know that those feelings would fall away quickly. Incarcerating my rapists won’t erase the fact that I have been raped. It won’t make me feel better in any real way. In fact, I think it might make me feel worse.
As a society, we are raised to believe in the system. In school we were taught to go and find a cop whenever we were scared. Every TV show tells a story of a bad guy being scooped up by police and ‘justice’ being served. Police themselves like to push the same, cringeworthy phrase about how they are the ‘thin blue line’ separating us all from a society that looks like a year round recreation of The Purge movies. When you’re a kid you don’t even know how to question it. Until, of course, it’s revealed to be utterly bullshit.
The police are a relatively modern invention. In the U.K., where I am writing, they were formed in 1829 with the explicit goal of protecting the wealth of slave owners. Prior to this, communities policed themselves and society had not fallen apart. We cannot accept that prisons ensure peace and protection when in actuality, prisons are sites of harm within themselves. We’re supposed to believe the line that prisons remove our rapists from society, preventing further sexual violence. This seems incompatible with the fact that prisons themselves are hotbeds of sexual exploitation, sexual assault and rape. All we really seem to be doing is shifting the incidences of sexual violence onto people we deem to be ‘acceptable’ victims. As someone actually committed to ending the sexual violence, this is not what I would consider a solution.
So what sort of closure is it exactly that the criminal justice is supposed to be offering me? My ‘day in court’, where I can stand up and recount my trauma to an audience while a lawyer tries to prove that I am a liar, all so my rapists can be set free because it’s essentially impossible to prove that there was no consent? In the parallel world where survivors are believed and rapists are actually convicted, am I meant to take comfort in the idea that my rapist has a family who have been torn apart by his incarceration? Am I really meant find any relief in picturing him sat in prison, assaulted by guards, unable to contact loved ones? Is making sure someone else hurts too going to make me hurt any less?
I don’t deny that some survivors feel happy when their rapists are put behind bars. I’m happy that some people are able to find some kind of solace in that process, and support survivors in responding to violence in whichever way they see fit. But I do have to question whether there is a genuine desire to have them punished in this specific way, or if it’s because criminal conviction seems to be the only avenue in which as a society we acknowledge that we believe the survivor and take sexual violence seriously. Given other options, would police and prisons be our first choice?
What is it that we actually want from our rapists? What is it that will actually enable healing? I don’t want to shut my rapists away from society; in fact, I want just the opposite. I want my community to see my pain, to understand my experiences, and to hold my rapists accountable. I don’t want them to be sent away and forgotten about. I’m not going to forget. I don’t want to live in a community that forgets about the rapists it has produced.
So what does justice look like? To me, it looks like ownership of our actions. I want my rapists to admit what they have done. I don’t want them to hide or deny their deeds. I want my community to believe me, and show a commitment to preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors. I want to actually be listened to when it comes to defining what help I need and what action should be taken. Most of all, I want my rapists to be supported in the process of unlearning the entitlement and violence that caused them to hurt me. I want them to understand and own their actions and dedicate themselves to preventing further harm. I want to see consequences that seek to address harm and attempt to make a meaningful improvement to the lives of survivors. Letting someone else decide that I am not a liar and arbitrarily decide how long to lock my rapists away for doesn’t sound like justice to me.
Perhaps this all sounds like utopian thinking to you, but it’s not. Many leftists and fellow prison abolitionists have enabled restorative justice efforts in their own communities. Leila Raven has documented her own fight for accountability here on Medium; the zine What About The Rapists? also has a lengthy and extremely detailed recollection of a community accountability process, alongside many extremely useful articles on the topic.
I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to pursue real justice. I know it will take a long time for my wider community to be ready to take on the challenge of unpicking and actually combating sexual violence. But I also know that the path to real healing was never going to be an easy one.
As a final note; this article has had a particularly narrow focus on my own experiences of sexual violence and the part that incarceration of rapists does or does not play in healing trauma. However, it would be remiss of me to discuss any kind of prison abolition without explicitly acknowledging that the prison system is a racist construct, and that the bulk of the important work done on re-evaluating and exploring alternatives to incarceration has been done by black activists – perhaps most famously, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. We cannot discuss prisons without understanding them as a means by which racism is both enacted and perpetuated. In acknowledging this, we must also fight against the violence that black people are being subjected to in the process of protesting the murder of George Floyd, which is why it is critical that anyone committed to ending violence donates anything they can to the various bail funds set up to support protestors. I also urge fellow white people to join protests where possible and act as a barrier between the police and black protestors.