Rape, anger, and why “forgiveness” does not mean “shut up”

Rape, anger and lectures on forgiveness

The recent story of Katja Rosenberg who forgave her rapist has triggered something in me. Not her story itself, so much as the elevation of it by others to some kind of desirable ideal. You may know who I mean. Those people who like to go on about forgiveness without having experienced anything they’ve ever needed to muster the strength to forgive.

We live in a world where people love telling rape survivors what we should or shouldn’t do – both before and after the fact. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get in taxis. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t wear miniskirts. Don’t be timid. Don’t be assertive.

Then, after: don’t be angry. Don’t you dare make other men feel uncomfortable, even for one second, about what you’ve experienced. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t bring gender into it. Don’t feel shame. Don’t feel unashamed. Don’t be put off sex. Don’t carry on being too sexually licentious. Don’t make any noise. Don’t think you can express solidarity with other women who’ve experienced this same violation in a different context. You’re supposed to be competing over whose was worse, not supporting each other.

And packed in there, often from the “well-intentioned”, no end of lectures about the joys of forgiving rapists. Maybe you’d be better off if you forgave him? It was a long time ago. Move on. You have to let the past go. Stop letting this hang over you. Just shut up. Stop being so bitter.

I am not knocking or being dismissive of forgiveness here. But that isn’t forgiveness. It’s wanting a quiet life. And too easily, it becomes rape apologism, it becomes a minimisation of what happened. Look on the bright side. Much worse rapes happen every day. Yes, for some people, that is a “bright side.” You’re lucky, he didn’t kill you. And it becomes an exertion of control. I’m trying to help. I know what’s good for you, if only you’d shut up and take it. Why are you crying?

I thought I had forgiven, seconds after it happened. That was horrific but he probably didn’t mean it. That was terrifying but at least I’m still here. That was agony but its only physical. I will pretend it didn’t happen. I will just put it out of my mind. In the years that followed, I was constantly doing all those things that people nowadays tell me would be the healthiest thing for me. I did those things naturally, to protect myself. To protect him.

I wasn’t forgiving him at all. I wanted a quiet life. I was trying to “forgive” without first recognising and allowing myself to feel the awfulness of what happened; without recognising that he chose to do what he did; without even calling it rape in my own head. That’s not forgiveness. It’s denial.

Katja Rosenberg says that it helped her to see the rapist as small, pathetic, helpless – no longer a dominating powerful force over her life. I can see how that’s empowering. I did that for years too. But sometimes this happens the opposite way around, as well. You make excuses, you apologise, you feel terrible asking for any justice because you don’t want to ruin your rapist’s life. Because you see him as a bit pathetic, or helpless, or just an ordinary lad doing what lads do. It is hard to step back from your own blurring of the lines and see him for what he is – a power-tripper, a bully, who used his body violently against you against your will to feel good about himself. To assert his masculinity, whatever that means. To put you – to put women – in our place. A rapist.

Forgiveness is beautiful but forgiveness does not mean what some of you think it means. Forgiveness does not mean shut up. Forgiveness does not mean an absence of anger, or an absence of condemnation. Forgiveness does not mean seeing his side of it or blurring the lines. Forgiveness does not mean erasure. Forgiveness does not mean a quiet life. It means the opposite. To forgive you have to first feel the full force of what it is you are forgiving.

Getting yourself to a place where you can forgive, if you want to do that, if it is right for you, like Katja Rosenberg did, that’s a tremendous thing to do. But when people tell you to “forgive” because they think you need to be less angry or less depressed or quieter or because they think you need to be more understanding about the rapist’s weaknesses or feelings, what they want is a quiet life, what they want is control, what they want is for their worlds not to be disrupted.

I say to those people, with the full spirit of healing, calmness and forgiveness in my heart: fuck you.

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