The Use of Sustained Restorative Dialogue to Address Sexual Harm at University: Examining agency in sexual harm discourse and evaluating a restorative model for prevention
The ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment has been illuminated on a global scale in the wake of #MeToo and other like movements, foregrounding the need for strategies that aim to combat and reduce sexually harmful behaviour. As in other areas of society, there is a critical need for innovative and proactive processes that look to address the issue on universities campuses, where sexual harm is rife. While many policies and programmes have been designed to respond to sexual misconduct in the campus setting, cultivating forums for honest and respectful communication may be a more effective way to address harm and the culture that gives rise to it.
This study investigates a Sustained Restorative Dialogue, a proactive initiative that uses restorative circle practice to better understand the issue of sexual harm in the community, and identify practical steps that aim to reduce it. I undertake a linguistic analysis of language use within the dialogue practice, contextualised by qualitative knowledge gained from participant-observation, to investigate what takes place in restorative dialogue and what it is able to achieve. Specifically, I use syntactic and semantic analysis of discourse to evaluate how individuals engage with the process, and how this goes on to shape their actions and beliefs after the dialogue has taken place. In order to illuminate how participants express their individual and shared experiences, I adopt the concept of agency as an analytic focus.
The analysis in this study is in two parts. The first involves an examination of the linguistic strategies that participants use to claim, ratify, negotiate, and deflect agency, which sheds light on how agentive positions are encoded and enacted within sexual harm discourse, and the wider social issues and structural constraints that such positions are connected to. This focus on agency is also able to demonstrate the layered and collaborative way in which meaning is co-constructed in restorative practices, and how structured, intentional dialogue can foster resistant, pro-social discourse and collective agentive expression.
The second stage is an evaluation of the outcomes of the restorative practice, through further analysis of discourse from within the dialogue sessions and post hoc interviews with participants. The analysis shows a number of positive outcomes are associated with participation in the process, such as an increased proclivity to communicate about sexual harm, an enhanced awareness and understanding of the issue, and a great deal of personal benefit for those members of the group who had directly experienced harm.
This research indicates that Sustained Restorative Dialogue can and should be implemented in campus communities as part of an effective sexual violence prevention strategy. This is of particular relevance to students entering university, where there is considerable potential for dialogue around sexual harm to build on and help provide a practical, agentive platform for sex and consent education.