On forgiveness, representation, and culpability

In my inbox about a week ago I received a promotion from UPLIT advertising shows for Lindy West and Thordis Elva. West is not someone whose works I have read extensively, but I do remember an episode of TAL, in which she interviews a previous troll about why he had trolled her. The particular cruelty of this troll for West, who was “eating 30 rape threats for breakfast at that point”, was that he had created a fake twitter account of her recently deceased father to harass her from. After he apologised, she interviewed him, trying to figure out what had prompted his actions and why he had chosen a means of trolling that was particularly pointed and cruel—in both its difference from the standard rape threat, to its deeply personal approach. West interviewed the man, who remains nameless, and although she does show compassion for him, she’s very frank about what he’s said and how he hurt her. In turn, he’s frank about the reasons behind his cruelty.

The second speaker, Thordis Elva, is well known for different reasons. She and her rapist, Tom Stranger, have co-written a book detailing the rape and their process to make amends afterwards. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve watched the TED talk, in which Elva and Stranger recount the rape and its aftermath. The way the story is sold, at least from that talk, is that Stranger learns to identify himself as a rapist (and what that means in the context of his self), and Elva learns how to forgive. These two elements are informed by each other, and are necessary to each other’s process of moving on.

When I first heard about this book, I was open to the idea of its premise. I don’t believe we can learn about what makes people do the things they do without studying them. West’s interview with her troll is an example of the importance of this. When West asks him why, he tells her, and his reasons are not excuses implemented to minimise his actions. He admits to feeling threatened by proud women, to misogyny and to hatred. Even though this is only one man, I do feel like I understand the “troll” as human better than I did before. And it’s entirely important to recognise rapists as human beings who exist in the same world we do, and not monsters that lurk in the shadows of sorority houses and middle-class suburbs, just waiting for some young, blonde, girl-next-door type to rape.

I’m also sick of the onus being placed squarely on the survivor’s actions: don’t dress provocatively; don’t walk anywhere without being accompanied by a male escort; don’t have a sexual history that is anything other than vanilla missionary sex with your husband; never talk about sex, especially if you enjoy it; always say no immediately; always fight back, even if that person could potentially kill you. Otherwise, you wanted it OR you made him believe you wanted it OR you are the kind of person who can’t actually get raped because you’ve expressed sexual interest at some point in your life and thus have opened the floodgates to all sexual activity from anyone, ever. While society yells at women to not let themselves be raped, there are men out there, raping without onus. Only in recent years has there been such an open sexual health dialogue that teaches how not-to-rape—discussions about affirmative consent, transformations in the definitions of what it means to “respect women”, etc.*

So like I said, I was open to the idea, albeit warily. There is always the possibility it could all go horribly wrong, or be offensive to survivors of sexual assault. But that said, the idea interested me. So I read some promotional material, and then I watched the TED talk, and for the most part, it seemed like a larger manifestation of what West was trying to achieve in her communications with the man who trolled her—why do those who attack, attack? But there were differences too. They eat at the narrative, and the resulting change is something I cannot support. These differences are twofold, and I’ll be addressing both—though I’m also realising this is over 700 words, and I haven’t even gotten into the nitty-gritty yet. Bear with me, friends.

Part 1: Perpetrator representation

Elva concludes the TED by saying:

A majority of sexual violence against women and men is perpetrated by men. And yet their voices are sorely underrepresented in this discussion. But all of us are needed here. Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.

This, on the surface, sounds almost noble, and it’s similar to what I’ve been discussing earlier in this piece—how can we work out why perpetrators do what they do if we don’t study them? But the framing of the statement is what bothers me. Part of this is because I think that the supposed “underrepresentation” is not (just) because of stigma. You admit to being a rapist, and you admit to committing a crime. Depending on when you confess, and the laws of the country/state you live in, you could get charged and suffer some kind of penalty—prison, sex offender registry, etc. This is because, you know, you should. If you’re a rapist, that’s illegal, so you should suffer legal consequences. This is, obviously, a simplified argument. I could go into more about the survivors’ right to justice and reform programs, but “if you do the crime, you should do the time” can only be argued against if you believe that rape should be decriminalised. In which case, you’re too far gone for this post and will need to start at the bottom learning kindergarten levels of empathy.

I’m not saying there isn’t a stigma to being a rapist—most notably the “monster” myth. But this can often benefit the rapist. If a friend or colleague or family member is accused of rape, it’s often dismissed, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And part of that is because our friend or colleague or family member does not “fit” with the idea of the monster rapist. And because we want to believe that the people we care about are good people. I mean, it’s really hard for me to sympathise with the plight of rapists when they have so much going on for them, so to bandy about stigma as an excuse seems a bit piss weak to me.

And that brings me to my second point. While meaningful insight into rapists’ actions is lacking, that doesn’t mean rapists don’t have a platform to talk about raping. We see it in literature, religious texts, and Greek plays. We see it in “locker-room talk”, including the POTUS’s pussy-grabbing claims. We see it in “the right to offend” with rape jokes. There is a vast precedent of men discussing raping women. What may be seen as a flooding of survivor stories is really just a counteracting of a history of a cavalier attitude towards rape, and rape narratives that have been, historically, from the perpetrator’s perspective.*

Part 2: Forgiveness

Being raised Catholic, I’m very familiar with the concept of forgiveness. I grew up believing that if I was truly sorry for any wrongdoing, I would be redeemed. I was also taught Romans 12: 19-21—where it was my responsibility to love my enemies, because that would somehow guarantee their punishment by G__ in the afterlife.

Forgiveness plays a heavy role in the conclusion of Elva and Stranger’s TED talk, and I have to assume that a book called South of Forgiveness is going to deal with the concept. While Elva does address in the talk that her means of working through what happened to her is not for everyone, she focuses mostly on those who can’t speak out because they are likely to be ostracised or killed. This is the sad, horrible truth for many women, but it’s not the only one. There are myriad reasons why a woman may choose to never forgive her rapist.

Forgiveness is a weighted term, and it means many different things for people. In our society, there is an emphasis on the necessity of forgiveness to “move on”, and that the ability to forgive imbues us with more moral fortitude than those who do not. This way of viewing forgiveness can put pressure on rape survivors to forgive, even if it goes against their own methods of coping and moving forward. There’s also the fact that, honestly, a lot of rapists don’t deserve forgiveness: they don’t admit to their wrongdoings; they make jokes at the expense of their victims; they do the same thing again and again, without experiencing any guilt or shame for their actions; or they may apologise and then do it all over again. In this way, forgiveness can become another means of placing the onus on the survivor, rather than on the perpetrator.

Elva and Stranger’s relationship is unique, as it seems she has found a perpetrator who (hopefully) is genuine about his remorse. I do feel quite disgusted about someone potentially profiting from raping a woman (the website says part of the book’s sales will go to charity, though “part” is not really enough for me). But if it works for them, then great. And perhaps a narrative like this will help people. I’ve read books about rape and trauma that I’ve felt were wholly exploitative, but that have genuinely helped survivors. I agree with Elva that we can’t judge someone on how they deal with or process a traumatic event, but I think we need to acknowledge that the reasons why aren’t always as extreme as immediate personal safety, and that those reasons have validity.

Personal reflections on culpability and forgiveness

A lot of my friends during my teenage years had the typical fuccboi mentality of how to treat women, and this had negative impacts on my agency and sense of self. I’m not going to go into too much detail—it’s taken enough time and energy for me to process without opening up that whole can of worms on a public forum. But over the years, I have tried to address this with prior friends, and mostly it’s been met with blind eyes or derision. I only really know one person from that time who I still talk to, and who is willing to hear me out when I talk about prior events that took place.

The process to forgive this person has been, and is, really fucking hard. Let me be clear—they never assaulted me, but they were culpable in a social circle that facilitated some fucked-up shit. Now they’re a believer in feminism and willing to listen when old wounds from that time resurface. But on the other hand, their history of behaviour impacts my understanding of them. Even though I can see that they’ve made concrete changes to themselves, I can’t let go of the precedent of their words and actions contributing to a sense of worthlessness, shame, and self-loathing I held for many years.

Even though it’s hard, it’s still been worthwhile for me. Receiving acknowledgement from someone who was there that the fucked-up shit was, in fact, fucked-up shit, gives my feelings a sense of vindication that was lacking before. Watching someone you’ve cared deeply about change themselves, in part because of you, is rewarding. And the experience has taught me that forgiveness is not always a tabula rasa—sometimes it a process of deciding to forgive and forgive again, until someday you don’t need to remind yourself to do it anymore. I don’t think this friendship is necessary for me to move on, but even through its difficulties, it’s somehow been worth it. And part of that is having the agency to choose who isn’t worthy of my forgiveness, and who is.

*I get that these paragraphs get pretty cis. I’ve tried to use language that is more inclusive throughout. I can go into a rationale about why I’ve chosen the language I’ve used, but this post has taken me all day to write. So message me or comment if you wanna jam about it, and I may update more in the future.

References

Elva, Thordis & Stranger, Tom. 2016. “Our story of rape and reconciliation”. TED: Ideas worth spreadinghttps://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconciliation

Elva, Thordis & Stranger, Tom. n.d. South of Forgiveness promotional page. http://www.southofforgiveness.com/

West, Lindy. 2015. “Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls For Thee”. This American Lifehttps://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/if-you-dont-have-anything-nice-to-say-say-it-in-all-caps?act=1#play

Romans 12, the Bible.

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