Given that we are going through a period that we need to contemplate more than ever on the limits of what we expect from justice, we wanted to create a series on “justice of disclosure, justice of women”. We are sharing this piece, which is a kind of introduction to the discussion we had among the Çatlak Zemin team in January 2021, with the hope that it would prove to be useful.
When we look at the relationship between sexual abuse/assault and justice, the first thing that strikes us is the lack of punishment which amounts to injustice for women. Justice, a value which has been sought out and demanded throughout history, is pursued and developed through struggles. In Turkey, women’s demand for justice is voiced by the slogan “Not male justice, true justice!”.
To begin with, the crimes of sexual abuse/assault which are being disclosed are produced in a patriarchal society. These are not isolated incidents that take place in a vacuum, and the majority of the perpetrators are men. Furthermore, even in cases where there is clear evidence, these incidents are very hard to prove, and they are of concern for both potential victims and the society as a whole. As it has been shared in a Twitter post in India: “Every woman has a #MeToo story”.
The society in which the act of disclosure takes place is also a patriarchal society. This means that the male dominated law/institutions are protecting the perpetrators and/or fail to protect the ones who are exposed to abuse and violence. The fact that it is one and the same society which inflicts pain and is expected to provide support, the boundaries of women’s demand for justice can be rather confusing.
Obstacles before seeking justice
About the person who is exposed to sexual abuse/assault: Due to psychological difficulties, the charges may be withdrawn at various stages. When the person who have survived sexual abuse or violence is disadvantaged, that is, the person is imprisoned, poor, a migrant, queer, a sex-worker, a member of an ethnic minority, wearing a short/headscarf, etc. then it is possible that the disclosure may be intersectionally devalued or dismissed.
About those who are responsible for the assessment after the abuse/assault (physician, psychologist, counselor, teacher, lawyer, police, etc.): Lack of knowledge or experience, disregard for gender inequality, sexist prejudices, etc.
About institutions where the assessment after the abuse/assault is examined (hospital, court, shelter, etc.): traumas caused because of denial policy or male solidarity.
About social obstacles: The lack of internalization of principles such as “no means no” and “woman’s testimony is fundamental”. The increasing use of anti-feminism as a tool/method to normalize injustice and introduce it as one of the options among others for equality (Yüksel and Saner 2019).
Male justice: Justice that does not heal and hurts
Justice that takes the side of the perpetrator even if there is concrete evidence by positing the reputation of family/institution as an excuse and thus buttresses the politics of denial, identification with the perpetrator, and male solidarity. Since the impunity rates are very high (for sexual abuse/assault cases the official rate of those who press charges is 10%) and since only half of the litigations result in a sentence, the perpetrators are not rendered responsible for the violence they commit. One or two out of every three women who discloses sexual violence face negative reactions –disbelief and victim blaming– and this causes secondary traumas. The cases of “murders related to rape” where the victim is accused and punished show us that even the dead needs justice. Article 438 which stipulates a reduction of a sentence by two-thirds in sexual assault crimes committed against sex-worker women was prevented by the protest “all women are against 438!” (18 February 1990). The law which made it possible for women to be forced into marriage to their rapists (article 765 of former Turkish Penal Code) was changed; however, the mentality is still prevailing and lurking in society. The prevalence of unlawful penalties against sex offenders and their acceptance as situations with an excuse hints that the enforcements against sexual violence remains to be insufficient. Medicalization of crime through castration law and outdated approaches such as death penalty are some of the different facets of male justice.
How equal are the perpetrators? How can application of justice differ with respect to the perpetrators?
With the #MeToo movement, mainly powerful and influential men were disclosed. As the reputation and power of the rapist grow, the discrimination efforts and campaigns to excuse crime increase. Polanski has been able to dodge justice for decades.
When the incestuous perpetrator is a poor and alcoholic father, justice is easily served. If the rapist is the son of a rich family of the district, justice is served differently. If the perpetrator is a foreman of the informal workshop of a relative, a guard at the dormitory, a technician at the hospital, a police officer at the station, then different cover up techniques such as “we will punish him, you don’t have to deal with it” can be used. When the perpetrator is a famous doctor, writer, lawyer, actor, academic, etc., various perpetrator myths such as “he is a bit flirtatious” come into play and the perpetrator can continue his career where he left off.
Male justice showed one of its ugly faces in the case of Nevin Yıldırım, who killed her rapist, when she was not given any reduction in her sentence and not allowed to terminate the rape pregnancy. Male justice shows another one of its ugly faces in hate crimes committed against LGBTI+ people where the perpetrators resort to a masculinity defense which is deemed “acceptable” with the words “looked like a woman” or “looked like a transsexual”.
Limits of what we expect from justice
When the systematic sexual assault crimes perpetrated against 20,000 women between the 2014-2015 by states actors as a form of political intimidation were revealed via the the Truth and Dignity Commissions that were established by the state in Tunisia, the contradictions of the current state feminism in Tunisia were exposed. Following the Truth and Dignity Commissions, there was rapid political polarization, and it became blatant that the clearly determined procedures and objectives for the trial lacked power of sanction. Many women felt that their testimonies were dysfunctional and stated that “they will go to the commission only if it is possible for the perpetrators to admit their guilt and apologize, not for financial compensation”. The religious shame culture and the prevalence of deep state repression prevented sexual crimes from becoming public. Those who came to an agreement on the pursuit of stability allowed justice to remain secondary. However, these processes constituted the kernel of more legal and political organization for women (Zaki 2017).
Turkish feminists organized a petition campaign against the systematic rape of 20,000-50,000 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1991-1994 and they also established a hotline for reporting. The rally organized on 24 January 1993 in Istanbul demanded “rape to be counted as a war crime, and rapist to be tried and punished in an independent international women’s court consisting of female lawyers”. For the first time, in 2001, three Serbian soldiers were convicted of war rape. Among the 1300 war crime cases, less than 1% of the files were sexual crimes. Only 123 cases were convicted (Şakir 2020).
Justice of women: The Istanbul Convention
Sexual assault is not limited to two people, the perpetrator and the subject who has been exposed to violence. There are also witnesses and listeners. Since it is very difficult to listen to sexual assaults and remain silent, women raise their voices loudly saying, “Implement the Istanbul Convention!” on every occasion. The Convention is the product of women’s own historical struggles and it is the most advanced legal text written against gender-based violence.
Although serving of justice does not guarantee psychological healing, it has a positive effect. Impunity makes it difficult to treat traumatic wounds; treatment must be accompanied by justice and fairness. While the person who causes harm is prevented and sentenced, it is necessary to take measures that will proactively protect, liberate, and empower women without being moralistic. With restorative justice practices the damage should be compensated through responsive, consistent, and effective health-legal-social services. The independent women’s shelters and rape crises centers should be sufficient in number.
The fact that only one tenth of women who are exposed to sexual abuse/assault officially file a complaint (ASPB 2015) does not mean that the remaining nine-tenth does not demand justice. This is exactly why we need feminism as it is a rebellion movement.
Is disclosure = Healing?
The answer to the question “Is disclosure good for treating the sexually abused subject?” is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Each and every experience is unique.
Disclosure alone is not a magical healer. The position of “survivor” should be reinforced through forming solid solidarity with women and the society as a whole prior to, during and after the disclosure. If there are situations where recurrent traumas resurface, then it becomes easier to be trapped in the “victim” position. The person can become more vulnerable to new attacks in the uncontrollable/uncanny virtual environment. Facing the perpetrator and the people who defend and support the perpetrator in an unsafe environment increases the likelihood of these encounters being traumatic.
Disclosure can have positive and negative consequences (legal, psychological, social). Taking the path of public disclosure for a self that has been wounded by violence and not psychologically empowering before the disclosure, can result in the further disempowerment of the self. It is necessary to be prepared as much as possible for discrediting by and getting distanced/closer to some friends. Not attributing healing to an apology from the perpetrator or perpetrator’s friends, not being angry with oneself, and conditional compassion for oneself can facilitate the healing process (Boyraz 2019).
The supportive presence of others is necessary to overcome feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt as well as to restore self-value and self-esteem and to restore a sense of autonomy (Herman 1992). Particularly, the social support of the person’s intimate circles is protective against trauma related mental health problems (Briere 1998). Failure to receive this expected support is defined as the “betrayal trauma” (Freyd 1992). Lack of social support increases the risk of suicide.
It is important that expert support should be trauma-oriented and gender-sensitive. Traumatic experience is historicized and heals, that is, the timelessness aspect is eliminated, and it is marked as a past incident. “Post-traumatic growth” cannot always be experienced (pain that does not kill does not always strengthen). Transitions between “fragility-resilience-endurance-flexibility” is possible with social support and solidarity; a fertile cycle is possible, just like the seasons.
Awareness about the positive and negative effects of social activism during the recovery period of sexual traumas
It has been shown that bonds established through movements such as #MeToo play an important role in the recovery processes of survivors of sexual abuse/assault. Social activism helps survivors find their own voice and regain their strength. The process is described as a move from silence and shame towards liberation and empowerment.
Engaging in activism functions as a useful coping mechanism and a source of meaning and satisfaction for people and helps them to understand themselves and their experiences better, to improve their self-esteem and relationships, to stand up and speak up against attitudes and behaviors that feed rape culture, and to form bonds involving support and approval together with other people. However, it has been pointed out that activism can also bring about various difficulties such as “feelings of being triggered, exhaustion, disappointment, and acting in vain” for which survivors should be prepared (Strauss Swanson & Szymanski 2020).
#MeToo movement shows that there is a need for a change in society
It is necessary to increase the positive and decrease the negative effects of the change that will occur on mental health both at individual and societal levels.
Psychological issues can be triggered in both genders during the disclosure processes as gender relations become stressful. The negative and lifelong effects of various childhood traumas on mental health can come to fore.
The need for changes in gender roles and relationships is clear; however, these changes will possibly occur incrementally and over time, not overnight. Thinking of all women as victims and consequently all men as perpetrators will not lead to healthy changes.
What changed and could still change in the psychic structures of gender roles after the #MeToo movement?
The male-centered organization of society and the historically “disadvantaged” position of women have emotional/mental effects. Disclosure processes can offer opportunities for the establishment of a culture of consent in intimate relationships and the search for a new ethics between genders.
Men seek assurance and guidance on how to be a man in the post #MeToo world and this can be considered as a noteworthy break that has not happened before (Murthy 2020).
Both genders suffer from the (toxic) myth of masculinity, which claims that in order to be a man one should be aggressive and dominant. Masculinity is not something which is static, it is rather dynamic, and there is no single right way to be man (Morgan 2019).
There may also be some habits that women want to change about their traditional gender roles: denial of the body, not talking about oneself, pleasing and comforting behavior, social isolation, not being a part of networks comprised of women, confusion about sexuality, regarding one’s duties above what one wants, dependency, etc. (Narayan 2018).
After all, we know that disclosure as a method of breaking patriarchal dilemmas/clamps is a legitimate and effective tool of struggle for feminists. Keeping the legal gains that we achieved through difficult struggles in the field of feminist law, we do not have to limit our expectations from justice to criminal law and state institutions. Without fixing recovery to the expectation of an apology, continuing to act by taking strength from women’s solidarity can revive justice by filling our hope.
Boyraz A (2019) “Psikolog ve hayatta kalanın şifa notları”, Çatlak Zemin.
Morgan A (2019) “Toksik erkeklikle ilgili gerçek sorun yalnızca bir tür erkeklik olduğunu varsayması”, Çatlak Zemin (The real problem with toxic masculinity is that it assumes there is only one way of being a man, theconversation.com)
Murthy RS (2020) Mental Health Aspects of the ‘#MeToo Movement’: Challenges and Opportunities. Gender and Mental Health, Chapter 6.
Narayan D (2018) CHUP-breaking the silence about India’s women. New Delhi, India: JuggernautBooks.
Saner S (2021) Feminist Bellek, On Disclosure.
Strauss Swanson C &Szymanski DM (2020) “From Pain to Power: An Exploration of Activism, the #MeToo Movement, and Healing From Sexual Assault Trauma”, Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 67, No. 6, 653–668.
Şakir Ş (2020) “24 Ocak 1993: Bosnalı Kadınlarla Dayanışma Mitingi”, Çatlak Zemin.
Yüksel Ş ve Saner S (2019) “Cinsel Şiddeti Açıklamak, Açıklamayı Geri Çekmek, Hak Aramak ve Bariyerler”, biamag.
Zaki HA (2017) “Tunus, devletin cinsel şiddetle yüklü tarihini açığa çıkardı. Peki bununla ne yapacak?” Çatlak Zemin. (“Tunisia uncovered a history of state sexual violence. Can it do anything?” Washington Post)
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan