My experience as a licensed psychologist, former rape crisis counselor, and sexual assault survivor shaped the way I viewed the recent news coverage of Bill Cosby's case. Not only have I worked with many survivors who never had a day in court or who went to court and did not receive justice, I am also a survivor who never had my day in court.
Considering the statistics and the mental health consequences facing survivors as well as the social stigma that fuels victim blaming, it is not surprising that many survivors do not come forward. Like many survivors, I was so weighed down in shock, fear, shame, and the wish for the horrible violation to go away that seeking justice in the immediate aftermath was not even a consideration. In my book, "Surviving Sexual Violence: A Guide to Recovery and Empowerment," I describe the psychological, social, and cultural barriers that often keep survivors silent.
Upon hearing the news of Cosby's arrest, his accusers described a range of feelings, from relief to joy.
What Is Justice?
While the dictionary definition of justice is a just, righteous, or fair act, there are additional nuances to consider psychologically when we speak of justice. Psychiatrist Judith Herman notes in her 2005 article titled "Justice from the Victims' Perspective" that less than 5% of rape victims see the conviction of the person who raped them. She conducted an exploratory study into the conceptualization of justice from the perspective of the victimized and notes that the justice system is resistant to punish people for sexual assault. Sexual assault is among the crimes that are least likely to be reported, prosecuted, or to result in a conviction.
As Herman describes, the current justice system is designed in ways that oppose the needs of victims. Survivors need a sense of safety, social support, the ability to tell their story in their way (not by answering a string of yes-and-no questions that rob their story of coherence and meaning), and the need to control exposure to certain details that trigger greater psychological distress.
Victims who do come forward often experience threats from the perpetrator, little protection from the law, and victim-blaming from lawyers, the media, and the general public. Herman's study based on interviews with victims found that most experienced the justice system procedures as disrespectful, marginalizing, and humiliating of victims. They perceived the system as one that is easily manipulated by charismatic and/or high status offenders.
When victims are asked what they want, Herman describes that it is often not a vision of intense vengeance as many in the general public assume nor is it reconciliation, which is often central to more informal processes. Instead survivors describe wanting validation from the community and specifically for people to acknowledge the crime that has been committed against them and the impact of that crime.
The confession of the perpetrator was only desired by participants in service of changing the mindset of community members and family members who have not affirmed the survivor's experience.
In addition to acknowledgment, survivors described wanting vindication and in particular for community members, family members, and representatives of the legal system to stand in solidarity with them in condemnation of the violation that was perpetrated against them. Instead community members often rally around the offender and isolate the person who has been victimized.
While all the survivors spoke of wanting acknowledgment and vindication, only half additionally desired a sincere apology from the perpetrator. Some of the survivors wanted damages to be paid to assist them in their recovery or to be made in the form of a donation to agencies serving victims and only a small percentage of the survivors actually stated that they wanted the perpetrator to suffer. All of the survivors wanted to be emotionally free to move forward with their lives but most did not desire reconciliation with the offender. Those who sought criminal charges wanted the truth about the perpetrator to be exposed, particularly to people they valued.
Finally, survivors who perceived the perpetrator to be dangerous and likely to offend again were most likely to want the perpetrator to be incarcerated. The community support that most survivors seek is currently absent in our society as can be seen by the flood of victim-blaming messages that have flooded social media aimed at the women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.
Expanding Notions of Justice
Sexual assault often disempowers survivors and steals our voice and humanity. When we are able to reclaim the pieces of us that were desecrated, such as our trust, joy, hope, faith, and sense of safety, then that is an aspect of justice.
It is our right to be able to sleep through the night without nightmares. It is right for us to be able to connect with others and experience the sacred beauty of intimacy without the intrusive thoughts of violations. It is right for us to be able to laugh, let down our guard, and know that we are worthy of safety, protection, and respect. When we are able to regain these things, it is an act of justice. In these cases justice is not given to us, but it is something that has required a great deal of internal work. Some work for it through counseling, social support networks, art, self-help books and journaling, support groups, medication, mindfulness, faith, or a combination of these and other strategies.
I celebrate our survival, our healing, and our restoration. We are not the same as who we were before the assault but many of us have struggled hard to get back some of what was taken. Some survivors also talk about being empowered when the telling of their story encourages other survivors to break silence and shame and seek just outcomes as well.
Finally, some survivors speak of faith as helping them to heal because they believe in an Ultimate Judge who knows the truth and who will require offenders to answer for their actions in the divine order of things. Finding just responses to unjust acts is a continuous process and a journey that survivors should be able to take with support, not silencing, from the larger community.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.