Rosemary O. Ogedengbe, PhD, CBT
Counsellor/ Sexual abuse trauma therapist
The question of whether survivors of sexual violence should forgive their abusers seems to be a tough one, so much so that some professionals would rather not talk about it. Survivors and their families are usually under pressure to forgive perpetrators. Some survivors have reported that their religious leaders pressure them to forgive, especially when the abuser is a member of the same religious group with them, and make them to feel guilty over their struggle with forgiveness. Sometimes, survivors are under pressure from their own families to forgive, particularly when the abuser is a family member or someone close to the family. Some helpers wrongly join in this push for forgiveness, by introducing it too early to survivors, and thereby compounding their distress. Some other helpers, in order not to get entangled in the controversy, exclude forgiveness totally from treatment, thereby failing to help the survivor to resolve and bring a closure to their anger, resentment and vengeful feelings.
Family members and professionals who work with survivors of sexual violence should consider the following:
- What does forgiveness mean in the context of sexual abuse and what should be the objective for facilitating forgiveness? Ordinarily, forgiveness means to set free, to pardon, to excuse or to overlook an offence or a mistake, and to wave the possible punishment that should follow such an offence. In the case of sexual violence, especially where a minor is the victim, the survivor does not have the capacity to pardon a perpetrator because s/he is a minor and cannot make a legal decision. Even the family cannot set the perpetrator free even if they want to because a child belongs to the state. It is important to understand that sexual violence is a crime against the state, and no individual has the power to grant pardon in such a situation. Therefore, the objective in terms of facilitating forgiveness is not for the survivor to pardon the perpetrator or to say that they do not want justice. Rather, it is to help the survivor to resolve the anger and vengeful feelings that they are experiencing because these are negative and distressing feelings that could have adverse effects on their mental and physical health. Also, with a clearer mind – one that is free from preoccupation with anger and vengeful feelings, a survivor is more able to maximize their creativity and focus on personal growth. Hence, the wellness and growth of the survivor should be the primary goals for facilitating forgiveness.
- A survivor’s anger is normal and justified. The experience of sexual violence comes with feelings of humiliation, feelings of being intimidated and oppressed. These feelings, together with the survivor’s experience of other psychological and physical effects of sexual abuse, cause excruciating pain that could trigger intense anger or rage. It is normal for any one in such a situation to get angry, to resent the assailant and to want to fight back. Hence, survivors should not be made to feel inadequate or guilty for their anger.
- Healing from trauma brings about forgiveness and not vice versa – Sometimes, survivors are told that they need to forgive in order to heal from trauma or that they cannot heal unless they forgive. This approach may be counter productive and consequently not therapeutic, as it appears to make forgiveness a condition for the survivor’s healing. Instead of forcing forgiveness on a survivor at the onset of treatment, focus should be on stabilizing the survivor, and thereafter, helping them to process their experience, change self defeating beliefs about the causes and consequences of their abuse, and internalize more adaptive interpretations of their experience regarding its causes and effects on them and their future. Besides exposing a survivor to affective expression and modulation, which is a basic component of sexual abuse trauma treatment, the more a survivor discovers through therapy that they did not cause their own abuse, and that their life is not useless because of the abuse, that the pain they are going through is a phase that they will recover from, and that they would still be able to live a happy life and actualise themselves, the less they will experience anger, and the less significance they will gradually begin to attach to the abuse as well as the abuser. Thus, the more a survivor heals from trauma, the easier it is for them to let go of anger and vengeful feelings or ill wish towards the perpetrator. Healing brings about a feeling of ” Okay, you have done this to me, it was really painful but I have moved on”. This usually happens at the integration phase of recovery. At this point, it is easier for a survivor to let go of anger and ill wish or vengeful feelings towards the abuser. During this phase, having developed a better insight, and having left behind, the phase of preoccupation with the abuse, anger and vengeful feelings, all that the survivor wants to do is to move on with their life with a clearer mind, new hope, new zeal, and sometimes with enhanced life visions and goals. At this time, the abuse and the abuser are the least that the survivor would want to bother about, and even if they have the opportunity to take revenge, they may not feel a need to do so because the anger has been resolved. This is the phase where some adult survivors could actually call their lawyers and say, “You know what?, let’s forget about this case, I have moved on.” Not that this would stop the case, however. It only shows that the survivor has moved on. Forgiveness comes as healing progresses.
- Why is forgiveness important to survivors? Letting go of anger, as I like to put it, is therapeutic for a survivor because anger towards a perpetrator is usually accompanied by vengeful feelings, and both are distressing for the survivor, and can have adverse effects on their physical and mental health. For instance, studies have found that anger increases stress hormones and causes medical problems, such as cancer, ulcer and cardiovascular issues. Moreover, as a survivor gets to a point where they are no longer preoccupied with anger and vengeful feelings, they are able to optimize their creativity and work towards personal growth. Therefore, the health and growth of the survivor should be the objectives for facilitating forgiveness. Forgiveness brings additional healing but it is not a condition for survivors to begin their process of healing from sexual abuse trauma.
- Some existing models of forgiveness may not be applicable to survivors of sexual violence. Some models of forgiveness require an aggrieved person to consider how they also contributed to their hurt, in order to help them to minimize their anger towards their offender, and consequently make forgiveness easier. This could be distressing to a survivor of sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence ordinarily tend to think that they must have done something to cause their abuse or that they must have failed to take necessary steps to prevent the abuse. These feelings of self blame and the consequent guilt could be very distressing for survivors. Hence, they are usually a part of the treatment focus. Therefore, blaming survivors for their abuse or making them to feel guilty for their abuse could compound their pains. It is unfair to blame a survivor for their abuse. The responsibility for sexual violence should be ascribed to the perpetrator. There is no mistake on the part of a victim that could serve as a rationale for their sexual abuse. No one deserves to be sexually abused.
- Forgiveness is a gradual process that requires the understanding and assistance of family members and the therapist. A survivor requires time to adequately process their hurt and anger, learn healthy ways to channel or release their “anger energy, and master modulation skills. They must be allowed to walk through this path at their own pace. Rushing survivors into forgiveness could lead to their excessive use of suppression as a coping skill. When survivors use suppression to cope with their anger over a prolonged period because they are being made to feel ashamed or inadequate for being angry, either by their families or professionals working with them, they could turn their anger inwards, and that could result in depression and self -harming behaviours. It is unhelpful to make survivors to feel guilty or weak because they are not able to let go of their anger at a time when we expect them to have done so. It is an individual journey. Survivors should not be rushed into forgiveness.