protestors with stand with survivors sign

What is Queer Justice?

In Alexandra’s article in The Nation this month, she explores some schools’ recent efforts to use restorative justice in cases of sexual aggression. And oh my God did this article rend my heart.

Restorative Justice in the way it’s practiced by the schools Alexandra features is a process of addressing assault not as an infringement upon rules for which the assailant must be punished, but as the causation of harm upon another person that can be healed. These processes then require the active participation of both parties, victim and aggressor, in mitigating harm.

The article also raises questions about whether processes like this might provide an excuse for colleges to continue sweeping sexual assault under the rug. Colleges already regularly under-punish students who have assaulted other students — or don’t punish them at all. Might restorative justice not just compound this? And of course, that a victim and abuser meet may just exacerbate harm, and requires very deliberate orchestration to prevent manipulation.

The article got me in the gut.

The first person Alexandra quotes is a woman who did not want to pursue justice through the conventional means — a process of in-college adjudication that might result in punishment such as suspension for the guilty party — partly because she felt concern for her abusive ex-girlfriend, who was marginalized in a number of different ways. Her ex was a first-generation college student, she said. Considering that, advocating to have her removed from an education seemed counterproductive to any process of justice.

It was a story that I’d seen a great deal around me, but very little in mainstream progressive publications, if at all.

As a queer woman, I often felt alienated from the way mainstream feminism talked about sexual violence and the kinds of approaches we should encourage. Sometimes, the movement’s  literature and mode of speaking perpetuated the notion that victims of abuse and assault were always women, and the aggressors male. This often included the notion that there was one type of structural power imbalance between the abuser and the abused — that is, that women are abused by men, and this occurs because women are oppressed under patriarchy in ways that men aren’t. This gendered structural power imbalance is often true, and leads to a consistent devaluation of marginalized people’s experiences of sexual violence and to privileged perpetrators getting off the hook. This is one of the reasons why the movement has so adamantly pressed administrations to seriously address sexual assault. This often means punishment, and that often makes sense.

But power can be a lot more complicated than that, and for many of us that model fits uneasily. It doesn’t account for the kind of violence that me and a number of my friends in queer relationships experienced. This violence took place between people whose sexualities already situated us as marginal. As queer people, we were vulnerable to certain kinds of abuse; we had fewer outlets than our straight friends to help us understand our relationships or cope with trauma and mental health struggles; and we were often marginalized in multiple ways, not just on account of our sexualities.

It also didn’t account for the way in which queer communities are often the only places that people who have been marginalized or cast out by families or mainstream communities can seek support. Considering how under-resourced these communities often are, even in anti-sexual violence spheres, a punishment-based model also didn’t seem to account for the fact that when isolated from these sparse and precious community resources, people often have nowhere to turn and may lack support around changing abusive behaviors.

Still, we long for justice.

Would more of us have come forward to seek these justice if there was another option beyond the acrimonious hearing process? The punishment whose nonexistence meant the failure of immediate justice — yet whose application on a vulnerable person might have just meant the failure of a certain kind of healing-oriented justice, too?

I’ve written about this before and I’ll say it again: When we talk about justice as feminists, we need to talk about it on a societal level. We don’t just want justice for our individual experiences of violence, but for all of patriarchy. We want a justice that leads to a genuine cultural change — a genuine reduction of harm. And we need to demand justice not just for immediate victims, especially immediate victims who fit our cultural notions of who a victim should be — but for those whose victimhood by does not so easily fit the mainstream narrative of what victimhood should be — even, I think, of victims who become abusers.

I don’t know if restorative justice is actually the solution to this. I don’t know what is. But I do think actual justice, deep justice, depends on seeking other ways beyond just punishment. At least entertaining the idea of restorative justice is a good start.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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