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What does justice mean for survivors of campus sexual assault?

“My biggest hope was that he doesn’t repeat this and do something to someone else in the future so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”

– Female survivor from a mid-sized, suburban public school on the East Coast

The past decade has seen increased attention to campus sexual assault in the US policy conversation. This has included efforts by the Obama Administration to use Title IX to strengthen prevention and response interventions on campuses, and the Trump Administration’s work to unravel this guidance and re-center the rights of the accused. The increased policy focus on the issue is critical given the scale of the problem: about one in four college women will experience unwanted sexual contact sometime during her four years on campus.

Mark Van Scyoc /

Yet more attention to campus sexual assault has not necessarily resulted in policies that better serve survivors’ needs. I looked around on my own campus and could see how policies left survivors without a sense that justice had been served. Policies that achieve this goal must actually listen to what survivors say about their own experiences. What does justice mean to survivors in the wake of campus sexual assault? And what would it look like for campus sexual assault policies to fulfil survivors’ definition of justice?

These questions animated my doctoral research in public policy: a qualitative study that asked what justice means to survivors of campus sexual assault and how campus and federal policies could help achieve that justice. The study included 30 in-depth interviews (19 of which were with survivors from across the country, and 11 of which were with campus administrators) and focus groups with survivor advocates. I listened as survivors recounted their experiences seeking justice on their campuses, in the criminal justice system, and through the federal complaint mechanism. Some survivors explained why they decided never to report the incident to anyone at all. Campus administrators and advocates described the justice systems they navigated alongside survivors, and how often these systems left survivors with the feeling that little or no justice had been served.

There was a range of responses on the question of what justice means to survivors, and several participants questioned whether justice is possible. To some, justice meant accountability: that the perpetrator would take responsibility for their actions, or at least experience remorse and acknowledge their behavior was wrong. Some defined justice within the language of freedom: that justice meant being able to walk around your campus and attend your classes without fear of running into your perpetrator. Many understood justice to mean that if a survivor reports she is met with a justice process that is fair, and not tilted in favor of the accused (as many perceived campus disciplinary processes to be). Survivors often talked about being believed as a form of justice.

However, the most consistent definition of justice I heard from research participants centered on prevention. Prevention was the most common, most emphasized definition of justice across participant groups. If policymakers want to achieve justice for survivors, they must be working to prevent campus sexual assault and dismantle the rape culture that promotes it. As one survivor noted, “justice to me is that he will never do that to another girl.”

What grew from these findings was the just prevention theory. The just prevention theory explains genuine justice for survivors as achieved through meaningful efforts to prevent campus sexual assault. This theory does not let institutions off the hook for all the other interventions that survivors identify as promoting justice and healing. Institutions should continue to invest in all these pathways (including accessible counseling).

However, this theory reconceives justice for campus sexual assault survivors in a fundamental way: while justice may include any number of response measures, it must include meaningful prevention efforts. Prevention is necessary to justice, even if it isn’t sufficient. It is this rethinking of justice through the lens of prevention that will produce policy that better addresses the justice needs of survivors.

Chelsea Ullman, Ph.D.
Chelsea Ullman is a Research Scientist at the Global Women’s Institute (GWI). She joined GWI at its founding and has contributed to the strategic growth of GWI by developing key policy initiatives, communications & outreach programs, and participating in research on violence against women and girls globally. Chelsea holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Public Administration, focused in Gender and Social Policy, from the George Washington University.

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