Do We Have to Forgive People their Teenage Mistakes?
It is strange seeing the man who assaulted me posting feminist memes about consent on Facebook.
Of course, he will have changed. Its been over 10 years. We were fifteen when it happened. God knows I’ve changed since I was 15, every time I read my teenage diaries I cringe at how silly I was. I repeated the sexist things I had heard from adults in my life, taking them for the gospel. I obsessed over boys I was unable to talk two words to and got into stupid fights with friends, I made big unrealistic plans for my life and with far more diligence, staged elaborate pranks on my friends. I got drunk, got expelled from school, and made dozens of mistakes, including accidentally dying my hair green (it was supposed to be black) and wearing a cape for a year.
I was joyfully ridiculous.
I also never molested anyone.
“He was just a kid,” I tell myself, when I catch myself feeling angry at him.
“So was I,” comes the answer.
There are a lot of questions at play here. Do we have to forgive people their youthful mistakes? Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? Can we really hold people to the things they do when they are just kids?
These are the questions we are encouraged to think about. When women are victims of sexual assault, people always try to find excuses for abusers, whether it is in the victim’s own behaviour, or the abuser’s youth. We are always encouraged to forgive so that our abuser doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of his own behaviour.
That’s why in cases of campus rape, the “bright future” of the rapist is so often mentioned to dissuade victims from calling them out. It is framed as though what unsettles the rapist’s track to perfection is the victim’s decision to seek justice, rather than the rapist’s decision to commit a crime. It also makes it seem as though the future of the victim has no importance at all. The victim’s future will carry the mark of the terrible actions of the rapist. Their bright future has already been threatened or had a shadow cast on it, and they didn’t do anything wrong.
There are other questions worth asking. What about the victims of those youthful mistakes? What about the people who will carry it with them forever?
My abuser was young. He has moved on from his mistakes.
I was young. I carry his mistakes with me every day.
Others argue that we must forgive, for our own good, to find peace. I have a growing suspicion that forgiveness is overrated. It may not be healthy to live in an acute state of anger or desire of revenge, but, like most things, the answer is in the shades of grey, not in the extremes.
I don’t want to feel obliged to forgive people for mistakes that are unforgivable. I just want to accept that this bad thing was done, by someone who I don’t need to keep in my life or my mind. I can distance myself from them. I can accept that I don’t know the adult version of my rapist, and I can still hate the teenager. I can be angry at the person I knew, the person that hurt me. Good for him, if he changed, if he got better. I hope he never hurt anyone else.
Still, I don’t have to love the person he has become. He got a second chance and a third and a millionth from other people. He sure doesn’t need them from me.