Post-#MeToo: restorative justice & reconciling abuse done by survivors of sexual violence

I wrote the piece below for the blog of the non-profit I work for (name redacted) and despite initial support from the organization, they decided not to go ahead with publishing it because of the very upfront way it portrays a current spokesperson. The spokesperson, mentioned in the final paragraphs below, is a survivor of child sexual abuse who has spoken very honestly and very publicly about the ways his trauma played out, including decades of abusing women. He is currently undertaking a run across the United States to, ironically, “break the silence” around child abuse and encourage more open, honest conversations about it. 

The last post published on the — blog discussed Junot Diaz’s piece in the New Yorker detailing his experience with child sexual abuse and the subsequent decades-long payout of his trauma, especially in his relationships with the women in his life. In the month following that post, a number of women with various levels of association with Mr. Diaz – among them students and readers of his work – have come forward with their own stories of Mr. Diaz’s abusive behavior towards them. Mr. Diaz’s position as both a survivor and an abuser is not an uncommon one – abused people who don’t get help often repeat the cycle. And as a man in a particular position of power and platform, Mr. Diaz’s situation calls up questions around whose stories are being told and how, how we can hold abusers accountable while still allowing them to grow and change, and how we can continue to mindfully center survivors in this conversation as we move forward.

We can hold to be true both that Mr. Diaz displayed a great deal of bravery and strength in coming forward about his abuse, and the knowledge that in the aftermath of his abuse he hurt a great many people in ways that he will never be able to undo or atone for. As he moves forward now in his healing process, he will hopefully begin to own up to the damage he’s done. But really, how can abusers truly atone for the pain they’ve caused? Sexual and gendered violence are woven into the fabric of our culture such that even in trying to acknowledge men’s* healing processes we are willing to subvert the emotional impact their rebounded abuse had on women* and others in their lives as some kind of necessary evil in their journey to asking for help.  

Why are we so willing to exchange women’s pain for any small degree of men’s emotional or relational growth? What does it mean that the bodies of women, children, and other marginalized people are seen as acceptable fields upon which men can act out their violence and aggression and eventually use as stepping stones towards their own emotional growth? Why are women’s, children’s, and other marginalized people’s bodies expendable in that way?

The #MeToo movement has been flawed in many ways; centrally, it is flawed in the way that it privileges certain stories and voices over others. Who was encouraged to speak out? White, wealthy cis-women – people who already exist near, though not at, the axis of power. The entire conversation pits women against men, which ignores the fact that trans folks are subject to an incredible amount of sexual and gendered violence. Immigration status plays a role in who could come forward; undocumented survivors have to juggle fear for their lives and the stability of their families if they have any sort of engagement with the justice system. Whiteness, too, has been largely ignored – and it is not just white men who tend to treat non-white bodies as less than, othered; white women are complicit here as well. And children, whose voices are so frequently disregarded and manipulated, have been consistently left out, as if child abuse and child sexual abuse aren’t significant facets of sexual violence more broadly. And so on. Wealth and power open the door to justice for victims of sexual violence – survivors who exist at the intersection of any number of marginalized identities simply do not have the same access to justice, healing, and recognition.

How do we consider the R*n2Heal within this framework? Much like Junot Diaz, Christian —–, —– spokesperson and the ultra-athlete performing the run, was abused as a child and has owned up to the many ways his enduring trauma played itself out over the subsequent decades of his life, including ways in which he was violent towards women (particularly emotionally and psychologically). Now he’s come forward as a voice for men who’ve suffered childhood abuse – among the many layers of the toxic masculinity rooted in our culture is one that prevents men and masculine people from expressing their emotionality and being vulnerable, and Christian’s and Junot’s honesty defies this stipulation. At the same time, Christian’s role as an advocate does not erase his past behaviors. Both pieces are part of him, and we need to be comfortable allowing him that. Junot both deserves treatment and a path forward, and needs to be held responsible for the women he’s spent a lifetime hurting. So does Christian.

The system is broken and people are still accountable for their own actions. No one forced Junot Diaz into emotionally and potentially physically abusive relationships. Nor did he ask for his trauma; his abuse was not his fault. Restorative justice is complicated and of-yet undefined; how can abusers be honestly and mindfully reintegrated into the communities and families they’ve hurt? Can they be? Is there a point at which someone becomes unforgiveable? These are the deeper questions we need to examine as we move further into this post-#MeToo moment in order to truly begin to heal, treat, and prevent child, sexual, and gendered abuse in our communities.

*“Men” and “women” used here as shorthand for cis men and women; this does not fully account for the experiences of gender-non-conforming or transfolks.*