Thursday, June 23, 2016

Forgiving Sexual Assault Without Condoning It

The latest season of Netflix's Orange is the New Black, as usual, brings up several controversial issues and numerous topical points. For those unaware, OITNB is a popular streaming service television show set inside a minimum-security women's prison. Orange is the New Black features a large ensemble cast, encouraging viewers to pick their own favorite characters, following their development from episode to episode. Picking one single aspect of the plot to analyze is difficult, as many beg to be examined more closely.

The character of Tiffany "Pennastucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) is a caricature of white trash culture. Earlier episodes have focused on issues like her remarkably poor dental hygiene and her status as a shill for ravenous pro-life organizations. For a time, it is her responsibility to drive the prison van, which allows for outside errands beyond the gates to be run. She is closely supervised by a male prison guard, but given some degree of freedom with the responsibility. It is on one of these excursions out that the guard pulls the van over at a remote location and rapes Pennsatucky.

In dealing with the aftermath, she confides what has happened to a friend, a fellow inmate. As has been retold in a series of flashbacks, Pennsatucky has had a sad history of acquiescing to abusive men. For a time she merely shrugs off what has happened as typical. Her confidant, Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria), takes a very different approach. She is outraged by what has occurred and intends to avenge the crime, Big Boo concocts a plan. Drugging the guard's coffee with a powerful sedative, she renders him unconscious for a time. The plan involves sodomizing the guard with a mop handle in retribution, but when faced with the opportunity, Pennsatucky is too squeamish to comply.

Having had time to think the matter through, Pennsatucky decides, with time, to forgive the guard who raped her. Admitting she has read a few pertinent passages in the Bible, she believes that it does her better to put the assault past her. She states that her desire to forgive is more for herself than for her attacker.  Following her decision, Pennsatucky speaks directly to the guard who raped her. She informs him that she has forgiven him, but the two of them recognize that things between them will never be the same. Both of them were once attracted to each other, but they recognize that such contact is against the rules. They were foolish to let things progress, as the system is designed to keep them apart. Further resolution will be left to next season.

Big Boo reacts to Pennsatucky's perspective in disgust, and it does little to paper over the differences in opinion and action that have driven them apart. She continues to takes a strong stance against sexual assault in any form, laying down the zero-tolerance policy of a zealot. Pennsatucky is largely intimidated by the intensity of the entire experience, from start to finish, and her conflicting feelings. Two different points of view lead to a schism in both women's friendship. By the conclusion of the most recent slate of episodes, season four, the damage has yet to be repaired.

Some of the harshest criticism I have ever received resulted from my attempts to address this issue. In a post I wrote a few years ago, I argued that, like Pennsatucky, it might be helpful for victims of sexual assault to forgive their assailants. Some people take Pennsatucky's perspective, some people take Big Boo's. I find it impossible to say right or wrong to either. I think it probably depends on the person. Forgiveness should only be undertaken with the consent of the victim and should never be coerced or forced.

I understand now why this stance was greeted by the same kind of indignation and anger of Big Boo, and now I have a better comprehension as to why. It's the sort of rage that comes from seeing rapists and those who assault women repeatedly beat the rap or receive slap on the wrist sentences. The problem is far from over.

On the subject of religious conviction, Christians are supposed to practice radical forgiveness. The Gospel of Matthew makes that very plain.

"You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!

Words cannot express how difficult, how very challenging that is. Secular people don't always recognize how difficult it is to hold oneself to high standards like these. Notice that it is not written that one should refuse to seek justice or that one should blame oneself. Sexual violation is against the law for a reason. Hating and exacting revenge are satisfying emotions, which is why we often cling to them following a severe hurt. That's what makes forgiveness a radical act. It negates the very parts of ourselves that clamor to seek justice in any form, especially violently.

The desired goal of victims, as I see it, is to seek a strong resolution and to get past the trauma they have experienced. No stint, no sentence, no statute of limitations can be attached to healing. I myself find it tragic to see the toll damage sexual assault and physical abuse exacts upon victims. I have made my own mistakes in interpretation and I won't repeat them, I will continue to encourage those harmed by sexual violence to consider forgiveness only as a means of greater health and well being.

If those damaged by acts of violence can get past their trauma in this way, then this might facilitate greater health. The way to avenge acts as barbaric as these is to work past them. Prosecution and court proceedings can add an additional layer of trauma and anguish to victims already unsteady and destabilized. None of this is easy.

Naturally, improvement comes with time, and probably also with pain. I have learned that few gains in life come without some discomfort. We must continue to encourage men not to commit acts of sexual assault. Once that is accomplished, women won't have to worry about protecting themselves, keeping pepper spray in their purses, or taking self-defense classes. I myself apologize for not seeing the complexities of this issue some time before. I don't excuse myself for my earlier ignorance, but now I understand why I stirred up the hostility I did.

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