This post contains my account as a survivor of rape. I’m not looking for public expressions of sympathy nor to argue the specifics of my situation. For context, despite my feminine name, I grew up as a boy and am genderqueer.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
“Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.”
So say the Lord’s prayer, Martin Luther King Jr., Yoda, and some random picture I found when I image searched “forgiveness meme” while researching this article. There’s no shortage of cultural wisdom extolling the virtues of forgiving people. There’s a lot there I agree with — as someone who desires to live in a society with neither prisons nor constant warfare, forgiveness is an important part of my political practice. I’m no pacifist, either, but I think the cycle of how violence begets violence is damn important for revolutionaries to understand.
* * *
When I was in college, a stranger raped me. I was drunk past the point of consent (and past the point of being able to walk very far unassisted) but tried to negotiate my way out of the situation at least three times before she took me to my room and raped me.
At some point, maybe I’ll write more about this. I’ve certainly thought plenty about it, in the intervening fourteen years. I think about it every time I’m afraid to trust a partner and every time I get nervous around sexually-forward people. Every time I have a panic attack sleeping next to someone new.
It took me months to name it rape at all, and for another year at least I called it date rape — even though that’s a bullshit term and also her and I weren’t on a date that night and also I’d never met her before in my life. My early conversations with friends about it weren’t promising: “Does that really count as rape?” “How’d you get hard, though, if you didn’t want it?” and so forth.
Gender-reversing the scenario helped me make sense of it. If I’d been a woman and her a man, more of my friends (but still not society at large) would have had an easier time believing me. (As an aside, I’m happy to report that the cultural proliferation of feminism has been successful to the point where I pretty much never run across people doubting me to my face anymore.)
Gender-reversing any given scenario is tricky at best. I was raped by a woman, and because of the broader political context of patriarchy that’s a different thing than if I’d been a woman raped by a man. That context doesn’t mean being raped wasn’t terrible, or that being raped doesn’t have long-lasting effects on me. But I go through my life perceived as a man — which, bizarrely, grants me a quiet sense of certainty that a woman wouldn’t be able to force herself onto me. Even though it’s happened already.
Importantly, owing to the context of patriarchy, I’m pretty certain that not only doesn’t my rapist know she raped me, she probably doesn’t realize she was capable of raping me.
With all this big important understanding floating through my head as I came to terms with what had happened, I skipped right to forgiveness. After all, society told me that forgiveness was the best way for me to move on. For years, every time I told anyone about my rape I included every excuse I could summon up for my rapist’s behavior.
I understood. She’d been shaped to act that way by our culture. She faced worse than me on a daily basis. She probably just thought I was cute and didn’t know how to ask me out when I was sober or how to take repeated and unsubtle rejection. She wasn’t a bad person.
Or maybe I’d skipped straight to forgiveness because I still thought it might have been my fault.
* * *
It was late spring in Santa Cruz, California, more than a decade later. I had one of those fancy yuppie smoothies with peanut butter in it, and I leaned against a brick wall trying to figure out how to both stand in the warm sun and keep my phone in the shade enough so I could read whatever it was I was reading. I was finally getting over a bout of heartbreak, had just found good-paying work, and everything was going my way.
“Hey, you’re hot.”
I looked up. The woman walking past stared at me as she said it, her eyes boring into me.
I looked back down at my phone.
She walked back, I guess having decided to go double-or-nothing.
“I said hey, you’re really hot.”
I kept looking at my phone.
My mood destroyed, I walked away.
In less than five seconds, she’d undercut everything good I felt about myself. Everything safe.
She hadn’t meant anything negative by it, of course. What’s more, I’m certain that she experiences catcalling far, far more often than I do. I get catcalled by women once every few years, by men who think I’m a woman about half as often as that. That day was the first time catcalling had really bothered me. As the unease sat heavy in my gut, I figured it was also the first time I saw the barest glimpse of what it must be like to navigate our society in a constantly-sexualized body.
That’s what I was thinking about, walking through the neighborhood on my way to my van. About how I don’t have it as bad as most of my friends, how I don’t have it as bad even as the stranger who’d just harassed me.
I opened up the doors to my van, climbed in. Despite the overwhelming heat, I laid down on the bed and fell apart.
* * *
I didn’t get to sleep easily that night. I was parked on the street, and the cars that went by held people. People were dangerous.
Then, all at once, I realized something.
I hate the person who raped me.
I despise her.
There’s no past tense to this. I still hate her. I hate what she did, but I also just fucking outright hate her.
I hated the woman who’d catcalled me. (That one is past tense. The emotion didn’t really linger.)
All that bottled up stress and fear came pouring out my eyeballs and for the first time in my life I just let myself hate the people who’d hurt me, and I slept pretty well after that.
That was more than a year ago, and that catharsis has so far proved permanent. People say that forgiveness is the way to let go, to move on. But for me it’s been anger that’s helped.
* * *
I’m angry at my rapist and I have no intention of forgiving her. That’s a decision made easier by the fact that she was a stranger — more likely than not, I’ll never see her again.
It’s a cold hatred, not a simmering one. For weeks at a time, I don’t think about her at all. I’ve no plots of revenge, no desire for some kind of “justice” with which to strip her of freedom, with which to put her behind bars. (Nor do I have any illusions that a criminal justice system is structurally capable — now or ever — of addressing sexual assault.)
Instead, I work towards a world in which people understand consent. A world in which people realize that sex isn’t something you get from a person, it’s something you do with a person (or with multiple people, or with yourself, whatever).
When I’d chosen to forgive her, I’d felt invested in her recovery. Now? Now I get to feel nothing about her at all.
Maybe one day, my rapist will realize how to be better. But I hope she never contacts me, never checks in with me, never apologizes. Because this hate isn’t a burden, the way forgiveness had been. When I’d chosen to forgive her, I’d felt invested in her recovery. Now? Now I get to feel nothing about her at all.
Maybe, maybe, Yoda was right that hate and anger are on the road to the dark side. But the Force needs balance. (I think. I’m not actually all that into Star Wars; maybe the Force doesn’t need balance.)
I’m still pretty down with forgiveness, overall. I’ve been burying some hatchets this year, trying to keep my antagonism focused on systems of oppression. I think understanding, nonviolent communication, and conflict mediation are under-used tools in the radical’s toolbox. I don’t believe that it’s useful to see most people I come into conflict with as my enemies. (Learning that helps me focus my rage on the people and institutions who are.)
The role of anger and hate in radical social change — or even in individuals looking for healing — is complicated, and I don’t even have all the answers for me and my own situation, let alone answers to offer up to the world. But what I know is that sitting in that van, letting myself hate my rapist — letting myself hate that catcaller, even — did more to set me free than anything I’d ever tried before.