On August 14th, the one year window of the Child Victims Act in New York State began, allowing survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) to take civil action against their abusers regardless of how long ago it occurred. At the time of writing this – not even two weeks after the window opened – over 500 claims have been filed. Watching the news of this unfold has resurfaced a lot of my past traumas, and I found myself looking into South Carolina’s statute of limitations on CSA, wondering if it was too late for me to come forward for my own traumas that I experienced growing up. I quickly found out that to file civil claims you have six years after you turn 21 – so theoretically I have two more years. This was the first time I had even considered seeking legal action despite nearly two decades since the first instance of abuse.
But then I began to think of the feasibility of this. I would have to go back to South Carolina for the proceedings, I would have to face those who caused me harm, I would have to recount the trauma in a courtroom, and hope that those in power believed me. More than the feasibility of it, I began thinking about what it would mean to seek justice in this way – what would I gain, what would change. Maybe, if I won, I would have a financial gain, making accessing therapy easier (side note: this is just one sign that our healthcare system is fucked up – I shouldn’t have to sue the people who caused me harm to access mental healthcare to deal with trauma). But, this didn’t feel right. This isn’t justice. Money and punishment are a Band-Aid on a larger societal and systemic problem.
I began truly thinking about what justice would mean to me. I had thought about this in the abstract, in terms of the professional work I’m engaged in on a daily basis. I have been involved in sexual violence prevention and response in various capacities for almost six years – essentially my entire adult life. I have invested countless hours in therapy and personal work to come to terms with my trauma, and learn to love myself and find healing. Despite my professional dedication to supporting survivors and creating better systems of prevention, and my personal journey of healing, I began to realize that I had never fully consider what I, as a survivor – not as professional – thought justice looked like.
Healing is resolving the symptoms. Justice is resolving the system.
I was 16. He was 41. Now, I’m 25; how old he was when I was born. It took me until about a year ago to realize that the dynamics in our “relationship” were problematic, that these dynamics were at their core a form of violence. Over the course of this year, I struggled to name what kind of violence it was. I was caught up on identifying the grooming, the leveraging of my mental illness, and the power differentials because he was a staff member at the church I grew up at who almost always chaperoned the youth trips I went on, and subsequently trying to label it as sexual violence, as child sexual abuse, as intimate partner violence, as something.
I was caught up the legal definition. I was trying to silo my experience into these black and white categories we have created. But the reality is, that experience – like countless other experiences – cannot be clearly defined as one thing or another, but just give a general sense of wrong. In my research of South Carolina’s statute of limitations on CSA I realized that when I started having sex with him as a teenager – a man who was 25 years older than me and was responsible for my safety and wellbeing – I was technically too old to have that particular instance of violence counted as violence in the eyes of the law because the age of consent in South Carolina is 16. Earlier experiences I had would have easily counted, if I could prove them, but this ongoing “relationship,” that I could probably “prove” in court as something that actually happened would not have counted – as CSA or any other form of violence.
The way our legal system works is based on technicalities, not realities. It looks at a person’s birthday and ignores positionality of authority and privilege. We create silos of violence through these legal definitions, and anything that is not legally recognizable as violence gets ignored. But in actuality, these experiences cannot be confined to legal definitions or what can be proved in court. People’s responses to violence are real regardless of what our criminal legal system says. Our criminal legal system, in fact, upholds violence that is outside of its legal definitions by criminalizing marginalized communities – most often black and brown people – and that is used as an excuse to inflict violence upon these same communities.
Justice is not an easy thing to define, whether you’re looking at the textbook definition or for what it means to you and the wrongdoings you have experienced.
When I think about what justice means to me, what it would mean to see justice for my past traumas, it is not wrapped up in finding due process for individual or collective acts of violence. It is centered on changing societal norms, on finding liberation for those in my community and other communities that are marginalized, and on finding ways to empower individuals to take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused, to learn from those mistakes, and learn how to create healing in the world instead of harm on an individual and societal level. It is about true rehabilitation – not punishment – for those that caused harm, giving space for survivors to heal, and enacting systematic change to reduce the likelihood of such instances of harm occurring again.
Seeing the people who caused me harm locked up, seeing a big fat check from the damages that they caused, seeing them on a sex offenders list – that is not justice. That is a Band-Aid. I don’t want an apology, I don’t want pity, I don’t want punitive actions. I want liberation, I want justice.
Currently, we target those adversely affected by oppression as the causers of violence. I want to see a world where anti-oppression is central to justice. Where we look at the violence in our society and see racism, capitalism, cisheterosexism, ableism, xenophobia at the core, and work dismantle these systems through revolutionary acts to eradicate violence and find justice for survivors. We cannot find justice in our current legal system.
For a long time I had accepted that healing is a life-long process, that as much work as I put into moving beyond what I’ve been through those experiences will still be there. Now I see the reason for that: healing is intrinsically linked to justice. And, in the current state of our world, justice requires a revolution and massive shift in our cultural values and societal functioning. We can work until the day we die on fixing our symptoms, on patching up the holes, on healing, but that will not get us any closer to justice. To truly heal, to give our souls more than a patch on a gaping wound, we need justice. We need a revolution that is centered on anti-racism, on trans liberation, on disability justice, on a world without borders. We need justice, not healing.
I could say I forgive those that have caused me harm. But if I’m being honest, I don’t. I don’t because to earn forgiveness you have to show you are invested in enacting justice in a revolutionary way; it is more than an apology or changing your own individual acts. It is about becoming part of the movement for liberation. I don’t need forgiveness for my own healing, but we need forgiveness for justice. Individually, healing may be all I need, but collectively we need justice.