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Better than Revenge: Rethinking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence

All PostsOpinionBetter than Revenge: Rethinking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence

story | Daryl Yang, Guest Writer and Alysha Chandra, Editor in Chief

photo | Alysha Chandra 

After the story about Monica Baey’s experience as a survivor of sexual violence went viral, much attention has focused on the appropriate penalties that her perpetrator, another student from the National University of Singapore (NUS) named Nicholas Lim Jun Kai, should receive. Several change.org petitions have surfaced, calling for a harsher punishment to be imposed on Lim by both NUS and the criminal justice system, while a company has threatened to cut ties with the university if it does not expel him.

While retributive justice is undoubtedly important, it is troubling that it has dominated public discourse, overshadowing other types of justice that are also important to survivors of sexual violence. In particular, Baey has emphasised that she is not looking for revenge; rather, she said, “I want some real change in NUS … I want real consequences for perpetrators that commit such acts.”

Indeed, as others have highlighted, this is not an isolated incident. There are many other sexual offenders like Lim who have escaped both punishment as well as the public scrutiny and scorn that he has been subject to. To focus only on whether Lim has been sufficiently punished is to miss the forest for the tree. Instead, we need to consider justice for survivors of sexual violence as something that is more pluralistic than punitive and rethink how we strive towards bringing justice to survivors, perpetrators and the community at large.

This has been described as “kaleidoscopic justice” by McGlynn and Westmarland in a recently published journal article on survivors’ perceptions of justice. Based on fieldwork conducted with survivors of sexual violence, they described justice as “a lived, ongoing and ever-evolving experience and process, rather than an ending or result”. Specifically, justice transcends the individual ‘case’ and is about imagining a world where women are free and safe from such violence. Justice is then not merely about punishment but “meaningful consequences”. As one survivor in the study explained, only “punishing people just doesn’t work”.

“The punishment must fit the crime”: The conventional notion of retributive justice in disciplinary and criminal proceedings

Nevertheless, before exploring how survivors conceive of justice in a kaleidoscopic manner, several observations about retributive justice are noteworthy. In an essay titled “Crime and Punishment: The Problems of Sentencing”, former Attorney-General Professor Walter Woon SC highlighted that there are several dimensions to the concept of retributive justice. Firstly, there is the idea that an offender must receive his “just desserts”. Secondly, retributive justice is concerned with denunciation, to send a message to the larger community that such behaviour is unacceptable.

In determining the appropriate punishment, judges and disciplinary committees must consider the principle of proportionality. A more serious punishment is meted out to a more culpable offender; as the saying goes, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In the present case, the question remains whether expulsion from the university and a conditional warning from the Singapore Police Force (SPF) is the proportionate disciplinary action for sexual voyeurism committed by a first offender.

On one hand, while it is encouraging that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has stated that “we have to take a tough stand and send a strong signal to everyone”, it may not be reasonable for all types of sexual misconduct in all circumstances be dealt with by expulsion. Some proportionality is necessary and crucial to do justice; the trouble is not everyone might agree with the sentence meted out.

On the other hand, given the persistent prevalence of sexual offences in our society, perhaps the SPF should similarly reconsider its approach and introduce stronger punishments even for first offenders. Criminal sentencing not only has a retributive function but also a deterrent one; a stronger punishment signals to perpetrators and the larger public that they should not commit such offences. Echoing Minister Ong, a tough stand from the SPF and the criminal justice system is crucial to sending a strong signal to society at large as well.

Better than revenge: Survivors’ kaleidoscopic conception of justice

In addition to criminal or disciplinary sanctions, there are other important ways by which we can do justice to survivors as well. These need to be seriously grappled with in examining how our institutions deal with both survivors and perpetrators.

Firstly, justice is also about recognition of the harm that survivors have experienced. On one hand, it is about the perpetrator’s acknowledgement of what he has done and acceptance that he was wrong to have harmed the survivor. In this particular case, it was apparent that both Baey and the general public did not consider Lim’s letter of apology as having adequately recognising Baey’s experience.

On the other hand, recognitional justice is also about validation and support from the community and formal institutions. Unfortunately, communications between Baey and representatives from both the NUS administration and the Singapore Police Force (SPF) suggest that much more needs to be done to train staff and police officers to better support survivors of sexual violence. Though the SPF has previously worked with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) to enhance officers’ sensitivity to victims during the investigation process, it is perhaps insufficient and more resources should be directed to improving how cases of sexual violence are handled.

Furthermore, another type of justice is participatory. Often, survivors feel as if their role in the investigation process is merely evidentiary and their voices are ignored or inevitably silenced by the authorities, be it the university or the police. In the age of social media, this sidelining of survivors can lead them to reclaim their voices through other means. In putting up her Instagram stories after she found herself being pushed around between NUS and SPF, Baey was finally heard by the larger public.

Similarly, in March this year, an Instagram profile ‘@reality_of_zehvier’ posted screenshots of WhatsApp messages and DMs in which multiple women accused an NUS student from Raffles Hall of attempted rape and threatening to leak sexually explicit photographs of women that he had taken without their consent. While it is uncertain if the women who were involved in the Instagram account approached the police or NUS to begin with, the fact remains that the institutions set up to protect those vulnerable to sexual violence need to do better at achieving participatory justice for survivors.

Achieving participatory justice requires a focus on justice that is not merely as the end result of a disciplinary process or court proceedings. Rather, as McGlynn and Westmarland emphasise, justice must be understood as “a lived, ongoing and ever-evolving experience”. We need to seriously rethink the prevailing conception of survivors as passive victims and ensure that any decision made throughout these processes fully involve them, insofar as they wish to be involved.

In relation to both recognitional and participatory justice, current reporting and investigation processes must be reviewed and reformed to put the survivor’s needs and involvement front and centre. While it is important for a perpetrator to receive his just desserts, it is crucial that perpetrators and the punishment they receive do not dominate our attention when grappling with the epidemic of sexual violence. Rather, the focus should be how we can do justice to the survivor from the moment she reports until she finds closure and peace.

Survivors like Baey and the women who contributed to ‘@reality_of_zehvier’ do so at great personal risk. The woman running ‘@reality_of_zehvier’ has received lewd comments directly messaged to the account, as well as on anonymous forums like Hardwarezone. Baey has also faced backlash on Facebook group NUSWhispers for speaking out.

Finally, preventive justice is another significant component of how survivors conceived of justice. Their experiences have resolved them to work towards ensuring that no other person has to endure the harm that they have. Yet, the disciplinary and criminal justice frameworks often focus overwhelmingly on the punishment of the perpetrator. Insofar as the punishment of the perpetrator contributes to his rehabilitation as well as the general deterrence of other potential sexual offenders, preventive justice may also be achieved.

However, to effectively reduce and eventually eliminate sexual violence, a more fundamental approach is necessary to reconstruct our social and structural foundations of patriarchy and misogyny. While their conduct should not be condoned, our villainization of Lim and other sexual offenders as particularly despicable or depraved perhaps distracts us from addressing deeper issues of rape culture and toxic masculinity. As much as some detractors may like to contest these ideas, it is incontrovertible that men overwhelmingly are the perpetrators of sexual violence against women as well as other men. Call it what you will, there is clearly something rotten at the core of our society that has festered for decades and demands urgent attention.

Our institutions have a responsibility to address this. A joint statement issued by four NUS gender groups – enCAPTsulate, Gender Collective, The G Spot and tFreedom – has recommended that NUS implement mandatory consent workshops for all matriculated students during first-year orientation programs that also touch on bystander intervention and more recently criminalised forms of sexual misconduct, like stealthing and revenge porn. The open letter also called for a university-wide gender based student organisation that would focus on the strengthening of gender equality and sexual respect in the NUS community. These are important non-punitive measures that need to be taken seriously as well.

Almost 5 years ago, gender equality advocacy group AWARE had already urged our universities to “ensure student safety by building a culture that respects and recognises consent”. It is troubling that change must come at the price of Baey’s and countless other women’s trauma. Though long overdue, the recent announcement by NUS Vice-Provost (Student Life) Florence Ling that the university is taking measures to “build a safe and supportive campus environment” is nevertheless an encouraging step in the right direction.

Beyond measures taken by NUS, other universities and institutions of learning should also introduce such measures to foster a national culture of respect. Much criticism has been levelled against the woefully inadequate, and sometimes deeply problematic, sexuality education that young people receive in our schools. Beyond calling for universities to introduce tougher punishment on sexual offenders, the Ministry of Education should take this opportunity to introduce stronger education programmes for students from secondary school onwards to inculcate consent and sexual respect.

The public outcry that Singapore has witnessed over the past week is unprecedented and a heartening indication that our society is no longer willing to accept sexual violence as a facet of our lives. However, a harsher punishment for Lim should not be the focus of the conversation on justice for survivors of sexual violence. This is a problem that exists beyond university campuses too and change must come both from our university administrations as well as our state organs in the education system and the criminal justice process. Ultimately, while it is encouraging that many people are rallying for justice to be done between Baey and Lim, this is only one among countless cases of sexual misconduct that have and are waiting to happen. Baey has helped our society break the silence on sexual violence, now’s the time for all of us to do something about it.

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