Women shouldn't be expected to forgive their abusers, says author

Many spiritual traditions believe forgiveness is good for the soul. But in this #MeToo moment, it’s not women’s job to forgive their abusers — and society shouldn’t expect them to, says writer Kaya Oakes.
Kaya Oakes says there's a narrow understanding of forgiveness that doesn't always help victims of sexual abuse. (Kaya Oakes)

Last winter, as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, Kaya Oakes, Senior Writer at Religions Dispatches and an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, sat down to write an essay about whose job it is to forgive and whether women should be expected to forgive their abusers.

She sent the essay off to a religious magazine she occasionally writes for. But she was surprised to hear that it was rejected.

"They didn't like the idea that a Christian person was saying that we don't necessarily have to forgive people," Oakes, who's Catholic, told Tapestry host Mary Hynes. 
Kaya Oakes is a contributing editor at the website, Killing the Buddha. (Kaya Oakes)

"They felt that that was going against their understanding of Christian values."

The essay was eventually published by the website Killing the Buddha, where Oakes is a contributing editor. But the initial rejection confirmed to Oakes some of what she had learned in her research: there's a narrow view of forgiveness that doesn't always help victims.

"There's this expectation that you have to automatically forgive everybody, because that's what it says in the Bible," she said. 

This puts the onus for forgiving on the victim, who's already struggling to cope.

"The victim has to shoulder the responsibility for doing the work of forgiveness, regardless of whether the abuser has done any work themself," she said.

While researching the topic of forgiveness for the essay, Oakes was surprised to learn that some Christian theologians argue that it's not the victim's job to forgive their abusers — it's God's.

"So you can pray for forgiveness, but in the end, it's God who's going to decide if you're forgiven or not," she said.

Oakes rejects the common notion that forgiving an abuser is always good for the victim because it supposedly frees them from anger and resentment.

"I don't think everybody can do it and I don't think we should ask everyone to do it," she said.

Oakes has personally wrestled with the question of whether to forgive an abuser. 

She points to an ex-boyfriend, who recently contacted her after 30 years.

"He had been verbally and occasionally physical abusive, and he wrote to me and he said, 'I'm very proud of you."

"I'm not gonna forgive that guy anytime soon," she said, "because that's ridiculous, cause he then went on to write to me and complain about feminists taking it "too far"."

Oakes said she'd like to hear more humility — and less hubris — from men who have been accused of sexual misconduct, particularly those who are trying to reenter the public spotlight.

"Humility is the flip side of humiliation," Oakes said.

"The victims … have been humiliated, sometimes in public, in many cases, their lives have been destroyed, and what they're getting in response to that is entitlement and ego and a demand that [the abusers] be forgiven and paid attention to."

Kaya Oakes is the author of four books, including most recently, The Nones are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (2015).