Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Accountability" continued: the fundamental flaw?

I've been doing a lot of thinking since I wrote about an accountability process a few days ago, and I think I may have figured out the fundamental difficulty: the process is attempting to do two important, necessary, and worthwhile, but sometimes contradictory things, i.e.

  • Provide support to people who have survived sexual assault.
  • Investigate and punish sexual assault.

There is some overlap, obviously, between the two, but other cases where what is most supportive for the survivor is not what is needed to investigate the crime and determine a fair consequence.

Supporting survivors

In supporting survivors, we should listen nonjudgementally, and let them decide how much they are comfortable disclosing. Having already suffered a terrible violation, the last thing they need is someone else telling them what to do, or indeed pressuring them to do anything. It is essential that survivors be able to decide for themselves who they want to tell, and how much they want to tell.

In particular, supporters should avoid saying anything that implies that the survivor somehow caused or should have been able to stop the assault. Rape is always wrong, no matter where it happens, what the victim was wearing (or not wearing), how much the victim was drinking, what the victim's sexual history was, etc.

In supporting survivors, we believe their stories, however much or little they choose to tell. We do not ask the assailant for their side of the story.

It should always be the survivors' decision if they want to pursue charges or not. Supporters should accept the survivors' preferences.

Investigating and punishing sexual assault

In investigating an assault, however, it is necessary to ask survivors to relate their experiences in detail, regardless of the survivors' feelings. Some survivors may want and need to tell their story, but others will want to try not to think about it. Even those who do want to talk about it would probably rather discuss it with a trusted family member, friend, or therapist, rather than an unfamiliar police officer. Because a successful investigation relies on as much information as possible, investigators will have to ask many intrusive, detailed, deeply personal questions of the survivor.

As part of an investigation, it is also helpful, sometimes crucial, for survivors to have a medical examination in which medical professionals may examine all areas of the body for signs of injury (if any), and collect any traces the assailant may have left—bodily fluids, hair, skin cells, etc. This information can be crucial in identifying the assailant and in proving that the assault took place. Even with the most sensitive and caring medical professionals, this is likely to be a stressful process. Survivors may also have to report any consensual sexual encounters they had recently, so that traces left behind from those will not be confused with traces from the assailant. This results in further loss of privacy.

If a possible assailant is identified, the investigators will have to question that person as well. If the accused proclaims innocence, this could lead to further questioning of the victim to determine whose version of events is consistent with the evidence. This further questioning, and knowing that the person who assaulted them (or whom they believe assaulted them) is denying the crime, and possibly accusing them of lying or worse, is a further source of stress.

Only after a thorough investigation is conducted, however, can a just punishment be determined. A fair punishment considers not only the impact of the assault on the victim, but any factors affecting the assailant's behaviour and potential for rehabilitation.

The accountability process

In supporting survivors, a noble and essential task, it becomes impossible to conduct a thorough investigation. It also becomes impossible to determine a fair punishment for the crime. This, I believe, is the fatal flaw in CARA's proposed accountability process; it attempts to perform two different and incompatible tasks.

As activist groups, we can and should support survivors but we are not qualified to investigate and punish crimes. Attempting to investigate an assault can undermine our support of a survivor. Without an investigation, we cannot determine a fair punishment, and because of the seriousness of rape and other sexual assault, punishments that fit the crime are impossible for activist groups to (legally) implement.

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