Sexual abuse and the pressure to forgive

Sexual abuse and the pressure to forgive June 8, 2015


People who are sexually abused are very often pressured to forgive their abusers. This idea that a person must forgive their abuser is especially prevalent amongst fundamentalist Christians.

If you are in any way burdened by the idea that you are not forgiving your abuser as deeply or completely as you should, please consider the six truths below.

1. You don’t have to forgive anybody. The idea that you are somehow morally obliged to forgive the person who sexually abused you is the worst kind of vapid, blame-shifting nonsense. It’s just people grossly misunderstanding and misusing the Bible. You’re the one who got hurt. You, and no on else, get to decide what your attitude is toward the person who hurt you. Anyone—be they family, friend, sibling, pastor, therapist … anyone—who in even the slightest way pressures you to forgive your abuser is at best ignorant, and at worst harboring their own terrible reason for desiring that your pain vaporize away into a warmly glowing mist of sunshine, unicorns, and happy Christians. For your sake, ignore them. You’ve got reality to deal with. And the reality is that you’ve been hurt. That means you get to heal when you want to, and how you want to.

2. You don’t have to forgive to heal. Never allow yourself to be pressured into feeling guilty or spiritually inadequate by the treacle that healing and forgiving are inseparable—that you can’t really heal until you’ve forgiven. That’s complete nonsense. Saying that you can’t be healed unless you’ve forgiven your abuser is like saying that a cut can’t be healed as long as visible scar tissue remains. And insisting that an abused person does forgive their abuser before they are fully healed from that abuse is like insisting that a person skip rope before their broken leg is fully mended. It can only make things worse.

Healing-wise, what the abuse victim can do is reach a point where they fully understand what happened to them; a point, that is, where their negative feelings about their abuser are neutralized by their comprehension and appreciation of how and why their abuser was rendered so dysfunctional that ultimately they were compelled to do the wrong they did. And for the victim that understanding renders essentially superfluous the whole idea of them forgiving their abuser; then “forgiving” has no applicable or relevant context. For them, then, what happened simply happened.

3. Abusers of children depend upon the feelings of guilt they induce in their victims to keep their victims silent. Sex abusers of children are doing evil. And if there’s one thing evil understands, it’s what its most effective weapons are. And when it comes to keeping his victims emotionally weak and suitably complicit, the child abuser knows that his chief weapon is the guilt that his sexual actions generate in his young victims.

Children yearn to please. They want their fathers, for instance, to love them. Moreover, every child innately and naturally trusts his or her father. A child being sexually abused by her father doesn’t at first know that she’s being sexually abused. She has no context for that. All she really knows is that her father is paying special and even loving attention to her. And as confused in the moment as she is about what her father is doing to her, part of what breaks through to her consciousness is that, on a purely physical level, some of it feels pretty good. And the moment avidly awaited by any child abuser is the moment in which the child he is molesting feels any physical pleasure at all. Because he knows that the moment his victim so much as responsively squirms, or in any way moves to encourage his touch, he has the victim he wants—the victim he needs if he is to not get caught. He knows that from that moment on the child can never claim–can never think–that she didn’t like it. That she didn’t want it. That she didn’t encourage it.

Now, inevitably, and in very short order, she will come to think of herself exactly as he desires that she does: as a worthless slut good for nothing but providing him sexual pleasure. And, just like that, he’s got her. Because now she won’t tell anyone what’s happening between the two of them, because now she’s certain to be too ashamed to.

Because now, in her heart of hearts, she believes that it’s her fault.

The abuser got the physical response that he knew perfectly well he would; and that inevitable response automatically becomes the perfect, self-obliterating weapon that his victim will never have any choice but to continuously turn upon herself. And, just like that, he’s secured for himself a quiet, pliant toy that he is free to abuse at will.

The real crime of sexual abuse isn’t physical. It’s psychological, emotional, spiritual. You make someone despise who they are sexually—which is at the very core of the identity of all of us—and you’ve created damage that can easily last for generations.

If you yourself have been the unhappy recipient of such a tragic legacy, the last thing on earth you need to worry about is forgiving your abuser. You have no obligation at all but to keep on telling yourself God’s greatest truth, which is that you are absolutely not the wickedly depraved person whom your abuser methodically and carefully tricked you into believing that you are. Your innocence was unnaturally destroyed, and you were left to build your identity and life upon the dreary remains of that destruction. That’s bad luck for you, yes. But what happened to you is not your fault. All of the blame is his, and his alone. And you do not have to spend the rest of your life dwelling like a criminal in the dark, dank hovel to which your abuser condemned you, and within which he depended upon you to remain. No. The light outside is calling you. And you are free to step out into it, the same as anyone else. And you absolutely do not need to forgive your abuser before doing so.

4. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean deserving it. Just because someone asks you to forgive them doesn’t mean you have to. If your abuser tells you that he feels bad about what he did to you, then: A) Whoopee for him; and B) That’s not your problem. It’s not your job to make better the life of the person who made your life hell. If your abuser feels bad about abusing you, then let him go off somewhere by himself and feel as bad about that as, God knows, he should. If by some miracle he has come to feel remorse equal to his offense, then let him do his level best to prove that to you. One of the first ways he can do that is by immediately making clear to you two things: that he doesn’t expect you to forgive him, and that he will absolutely honor your desire, should you express it, to completely and permanently remove himself from your life. If he doesn’t voluntarily do those two things, then you can be sure that his desire for you to forgive him is about serving his emotional needs, not yours. Screw that.

Never forget that abusers are typically superb at expressing sincere remorse for their actions and great affection for their victims. The reason they are so adept at this is because they’ve been practicing it for so long. They used you. And they know that makes you, at your core, their enemy. And sexual abusers know the wisdom of keeping their enemies close.

5. Forgiving your abuser does not necessitate letting them back into your life. Forgiving your abuser does not, in any way whatsoever, oblige you to have, or continue to have, a relationship with them. Period. Forgiving a snake for biting you doesn’t mean that you have to again pick up that snake again. You’re more than free to let it slither away.

6. Forgiveness isn’t a constant state. Being sexually abused means being wounded at every level of your being. Sometimes you will feel as if you’ve completely healed from the trauma of your abuse—which is likely to then bring washing over you great waves of forgiveness and even compassion for your abuser. But later—could be a day, week, or years later—you may find a wave of an altogether different sort pulling you back out to sea, where you will again find yourself feeling lost and sinking. That whole back-and-forth, up-then-down dynamic is an entirely natural part of the whole process of healing from abuse. Victims of abuse commonly get trapped into believing that because they felt healed and benevolent on Tuesday, there’s something wrong with them if on Friday they’re back to feeling wounded and bitter. But there’s nothing at all wrong or strange about that kind of vacillation. Again, it’s just part of the process. It’s okay. Understanding, accepting, and even anticipating that kind of fluctuation in your feelings can leave you, even on your worst days, so close to the shore that, once you find yourself adrift in the ocean, you can actually relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the swim back in.

Remember: Healing is your journey. It’s your process. It’s your right—and it must be done according to your needs, your rhythms, your natural and organic intuitions about how to make yourself whole. Don’t ever let anyone, for any reason—religious or otherwise—co-opt your healing process away from you.

Whether or not you forgive your abuser has nothing to do with whether or not you heal from the abuse done to you. That you heal—however you heal—is all that matters.

If you were sexually abused, I cannot urge you strongly enough to buy, along with its workbook, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. It will change your life. (The article above is not taken from this book; those ideas/recommendations are my own.)

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