If you are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment and wish to share your experiences – your journey to recovery, your motivations, as well as the people who have supported you – please do so in the form here.
Please read through this document before you start, which includes important considerations to take into account (e.g. things you may wish to include, safety considerations, and AWARE’s values). Please feel free to remain anonymous i.e. use initials, change names or use other ways to make sure the story does not identify you.
You can also share your story anonymously on heartochange.
These articles may contain references and depictions of sexual violence, which some readers may find triggering. Please read with discretion.
What Do We Do With A Rapist’s Guilt?
On August 27 2016, I woke up confused and in pain, not completely sure where I was and how I got there. I got dressed, despite not remembering getting undressed, and went on with my day. I took a shower and tried to ignore the bleeding. I replied to worried text messages asking why I’d disappeared the night before with assurances that I was okay.
I pretended that nothing was wrong for the next few days but every time I saw him around campus, and every time he smiled at me or talked to me as though nothing had happened, I felt more and more like I was imploding. I have not felt safe on this campus since I got here.
I am just one of billions of women who have to live with the experience of having been sexually violated, and/or with the fear of sexual violence. And just like almost every other woman I know, I think of ways to keep myself safe. I never leave my drink unattended at a party. I have, crying through a panic attack, begged a friend not to let anything bad happen to me again.
But there will always be a girl who is more drunk, a girl who doesn’t have a friend to call. And I want her to be safe too.
For the longest time, this thought was my only consolation — that if it had not happened to me, it would have happened to someone else. I think about all the other girls at the club that night. I think about every other girl in our community.
But I’m not going to solve this issue with self-sacrifice and a high pain tolerance and I should not have to. Our solution to sexual violence should not be to distribute it better. We can’t keep telling women to keep themselves “safe” while doing nothing to make the world safer for them. We need to stop thinking about rape as something that inevitably happens, perpetrated by monsters lurking in dark corners. This is because for almost 90% of survivors of sexual assault, the perpetrator is someone they know. Rapists are our friends, our family, our classmates. They go to our school. And how we talk about rape needs to align with this fact.
On some level, I understand people’s hesitation to say that a member of our community can be, and is, a rapist, even when details of the rape are told to them by the survivor firsthand. It is difficult to think that a friend can do something so awful, especially when so much of the current conversation centers around the opinion that rapists should be shunned forever from a certain community. When complete alienation seems like the only option for accountability, of course we hesitate. We say, “but they’re so nice”, not realizing that an experience of this person as a nice person and another person’s experience of being violated by them do not contradict each other. We have created this binary, where either someone is a rapist and therefore a monster, or they are not and the survivor is a liar. This is unproductive and harmful.
Even when there seems to be an understanding that goes beyond this binary, people still hesitate to acknowledge the fact that rape in the way we understand it — extremely violating and deeply wrong — can be perpetrated by a member of our own community. Instead, their solution is to somehow discount the violence in a way that differentiates it from the violence we think about when we think about rape in the abstract. They say they know rape is wrong, but this is different, so their friend isn’t a rapist. In fact, their friend is a victim of the same situation as I am. They don’t deny that I felt violated, but insist that I just forgot that I had consented.
Because it is more convenient, they forget the simple fact that having sex with someone who is so drunk they cannot walk straight or remember what happened is rape. They talk about gray areas and choose to remain neutral. They invite both of us to their birthday party, then apologize to both of us for the discomfort the situation brings about.
You cannot be neutral here. The idea of neutrality is what allowed people to say to me, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, I just also believe his version of what happened”.
How can you believe that I was raped, while also believing that he did not rape anyone?
I felt isolated and disbelieved. I almost dropped out of college. While you have the luxury of remaining neutral, the survivor does not. When you don’t take the side of the survivor, you by default, take the side of the rapist.
Additionally, the idea that the people around us, and we ourselves, cannot be perpetrators makes it too easy for us not to hold each other and ourselves accountable for our actions. We need to create spaces for conversations where rapists properly acknowledge what they have done and the hurt they have caused.
Rapists need to understand that no one, themselves included, is incapable of committing sexual violence. In order to do this, we as individuals and as a community need to reevaluate how we think about sexual violence, who is capable of committing it, and what justice looks like. How can we better hold perpetrators accountable?
Complete alienation does not encourage a person to be better, but neither does complicity. Telling a rapist they did nothing wrong does not help them, and it definitely does not help survivors, nor our community. I understand. It is hard to see a loved one in pain. I have heard so many times from my rapist’s friends that he is doing poorly, and that he feels horrible and guilty. But our empathy for rapists needs to end where it causes our empathy for survivors to lessen. Acknowledging their feelings of guilt does not erase the need for transformative justice that acknowledges the survivor in a significant manner.
A rapist’s feelings of guilt are never the end point, especially when the survivors find themselves sitting on the sidelines of their rapist’s feelings. I have heard over and over again about the implications of my rape on my rapist — about his declining mental health and how much he says he regrets it. He has performed the same monologue to so many members of our community, and people mistake his pain for part of his journey to self-improvement. All that’s left for the situation to close is forgiveness, and they cannot understand why I won’t give it to him.
But he never says what he is apologizing for, and the conversation never goes beyond his feelings. In all of his regret and all of his apologies, I never seem to matter or even exist — I am neither in the room nor in the apology.
Even his admission of what he physically did to me that night was not made to me. He had told a mutual friend, and not me, that he had put a razor in my vagina, when months before that, he had omitted that fact to my face. When I read “penetration with a razor” in a report which listed sexual acts I did not remember engaging in, I wanted to die. Instead of telling me this fact when I had agreed to speak with him beforehand, he had told me how badly he had been feeling, although it is unclear what he felt bad about since he never admitted to what he did. He asked if we could still be friends. When I said no, he seemed genuinely confused. He talked about how he didn’t want to lose a friendship over this.
I wondered why he kept this from me. I have now realized that to him, how I would feel about it was less important than the friendship he thought he had lost. Even when he told our mutual friend what he did, it was immediately followed by detailed explanations of his suffering. What he did to me didn’t seem to matter, but how he felt about it did. I hear the echoes of his monologues in the way people approach me after listening to them — in their deep sympathy for his situation without any real understanding of how he had landed himself in it, and in their anger towards me for not forgiving him. His apologies are structured to place the focus on his pain, and away from mine. And I am expected to scavenge for these apologies that are not directed to anyone in particular and forgive him, or risk being told I am too flippant about his feelings.
I am not saying his feelings of guilt are not real or valid. It must be extremely difficult to think that you could have raped, and did rape, someone. But he does not understand that his feelings of guilt do not negate the need for external consequences, and our community reinforces this lack of understanding constantly. Instead of treating his feelings as the beginning of conversations, they use these feelings to end them.
So what do we do with a rapist’s guilt?
We should, most definitely, never tell them not to feel it. It is important that they do, and that they remember how it feels so they do not repeat their actions. We need to direct this guilt to have them understand why they feel it. They feel guilt because they have done something awful, and they must acknowledge this. To be able to tell when you’ve done something wrong is a good first step, but we need to hold them accountable too. We have to acknowledge their mistake, both to ourselves and to them, even if the rapist is our friend. Having compassion for rapists does not mean shielding them from the consequences.
The first step towards forgiving someone is to believe that they are to blame. It is difficult to do that when everyone around me insists that it is “nobody’s fault” — not mine, but also not my rapist’s. This can’t be true. I refuse to believe things like this “just happen”, or that this was some tragic miscommunication that hurt both me and my rapist in a comparable way. I don’t want to make claims about who is more affected — that’s not the point. I have been accused of ruining my rapist’s life. With the best of intentions, people have argued against this accusation by claiming that my life has been ruined as well. But has it? And should it matter even if I come out of this okay?
This isn’t about whose life has been made worse. This is about the decision he made.
What he, and so many other members of our community, don’t seem to understand is that his suffering is not compensation for mine. I will not let this community forgive him on my behalf.
Rapists feel guilt because they are human. I believe with my whole heart that every human has so much potential for goodness. But my belief that humans have the potential to be good must be matched with a willingness to hold them to a higher standard when they fail to be good.
Just because you love someone, it does not make them incapable of rape. I was raped because someone you love and respect chose to rape me. When we choose not to hold rapists accountable, we harm survivors, we perpetuate rape culture which harms all of us, and we harm the perpetrators we love by not helping them become better people. As perpetrators of sexual violence return to our community, we need to remind them that they can be, and must be, better.
In order to do this, we need to move past denial and actually accept, not just in policy but in everyday conversations, that they did something wrong. We cannot even begin the process of forgiving if perpetrators do not own up to their actions, and we need to stop enabling them to get by without doing so fully. We need to reflect on how we think about sexual violence, who we think is capable of it, and how we respond when it happens in our community.
Our response matters. Two other survivors have approached me to say they wanted to file reports, but were afraid to do so after seeing the community’s response to my case. This is not acceptable. We need to do better.