Recently, a friend posted about an experience with street harassment on social media. Most people expressed support for my friend through stories of solidarity and validating her* experience.
However, one person — a man — suggested that she forgive the man who harassed her because he “knew not what he does.”
I call bullshit. That man knew exactly what he was doing, which was playing a game for power.
And I call bullshit on the concept that a woman should be called upon to forgive a man for harassing her — in whatever particular form that takes. She can feel whatever she feels however long she needs to feel it. And when those feelings aren’t serving her any longer, she can choose what action she makes next.
For me, that usually looks like (when I’m ready) letting it go. Because, let’s face it, street harassment is a pretty common occurrence in the lives of most women, and to dedicate energy to holding a grudge doesn’t especially serve me. Sometimes I need to rant online or to a friend before I can let it go. Sometimes I feel scared and I need to work through those feelings before I can work on letting it go because sometimes street harassment isn’t just verbal harassment. Sometimes I need a no-questions-asked hug from a trusted other (a friend, a co-worker, a partner, etc.) before I can let it go. Sometimes I can yell some satisfying thing at the person harassing me and then I can move on. Sometimes I can just shrug it off right then. Sometimes every muscle in my body tenses until I’m out of range and when I feel safe again, I can let it go. Sometimes I blog about it, because the same shit keeps on happening and what the hell else can I do but try to raise a little more awareness from my corner of the internet? Sometimes, a lot of things.
But I’m sick of men suggesting women just “let it go” and forgive. I’m sick of men in my life suggesting the times I’ve been harassed are my fault for waiting out rain under a bridge or running or working with folks who are unhoused or drinking or not drinking or walking my dog down my block or wearing shorts or a pants or a shirt or having my hair pulled back or down or in braids or posting on the internet or biking to work or you know, doing something really sexy, like breathing and blinking and having a pulse.
I’ve deleted and re-written a paragraph a half dozen times because I can’t figure out how to explain the ways I’m still feeling feelings toward the man — who I thought was a friend — who raped me after questioning my sexuality. I can’t figure out how to explain the particular sickness in the pit of my stomach or the ways that anger and frustration and sadness have, at various points, fueled my feminism and my slow career movement into advocacy. I can’t figure out how to explain the ways that experience destroyed me and the ways I’ve rebuilt myself. I can’t figure out how to say that sometimes, when I see someone who reminds me of him, I still tense up. I can’t figure out how to say how often I don’t think about him. And, I can’t figure out how to articulate the ways I felt unfairly questioned when I reported my rape to a detective, the ways I felt blamed, the hopelessness I felt when I went in to report it knowing the stats about conviction rates.
Only one person has suggested I forgive the man who raped me. But, the implication that men who rape (or harass) don’t know what they’re doing is everywhere — we can look at any number of reports of (young, especially) men whose “lives will be destroyed” because they raped someone and ended up with a conviction. We can look at any media story that suggest that obtaining consent from one’s partner is simply too much of a hassle or certain segments of the population wringing their hands over the concept of teaching consent because it will cause our men to be less “manly,” whatever that means. We can look at the ways the internet suggests that street harassment is actually a compliment instead of a power play.
I could go on.
But the point is this: we need to let people who have experienced trauma have their feelings without the expectation (or the command) that they forgive the person or people who traumatized them. And, in the spaces where we consider ourselves aspiring allies, we need to talk to people who might — because of their own biases — be able to hear us better about how to be less shitty towards others. We need to hold those people — and ourselves, when we find ourselves one of “those people” (and that realization always sucks) — accountable. Because that’s how we create safer spaces.
*Because my friend uses female pronouns, and because I use female pronouns, I am going to use some gender essentialist language in this post because I don’t know how others experience the world, but would like to point out right from the start that street harassment happens to people of all and no gender.