For Violet, a 42-year-old writer and artist from Miami Beach, her sister’s 15th birthday party will always be a crushing memory. “She had a big sleepover with boys and girls, and four of us all laid on a trundle bed together under a big blanket in a room full of people,” she tells me. An 18-year-old named Chester was among the boys invited to the party. “With him and me at the head of the bed and two others at the foot — all facing each other and talking — he pulled my hand over him in a hug and placed it on his erection,” Violet explains. “I laid there eyes wide and frozen, saying nothing, while he moved my hand.” She was 12 years old at the time.
Violet says that Chester sexually assaulted her on a weekly basis for the next five months. Because he was friends with her sister and regularly invited over to the family home — and because Violet felt guilty, confused and partly culpable because she’d once had a crush on him — she says he was able to groom and assault her without detection. “After that night, when he slept over alone, he’d scoot up on my bed in the middle of the night and guide me through really weird hand jobs and then blow jobs,” she recounts. She says that she’s since found out that he plead guilty to assaulting two young girls in a similar manner in Canada, but received a conditional discharge that left him with no criminal record.
Despite describing the abuse as “totally scarring her self-esteem,” Violet tells me that she could imagine forgiving Chester. “If he’d just acknowledge that he initiated [the sexual contact] and that doing so was an unfair way to take advantage of a little girl, that would help,” she says. “A heartfelt apology for what this has done to my entire life is more than I could ask for, but it would make me actively hate him a lot less.”
“Hearing him say it wasn’t my fault would go a long way,” she adds.
Forgiveness has become a buzzword in the #MeToo era. In October 2017, just weeks after Harvey Weinstein was accused by dozens of women of serial sexual harassment and rape, one of his most prominent accusers, Ashley Judd, told Diane Sawyer that she was willing to forgive him. She described him as a “sick and suffering” man and told Sawyer that, for her, forgiveness was “an easier way to roll through the world than the alternative.” Since then, more than 250 powerful people, the vast majority of whom are men, have been accused of sexual misconduct, and the question of their forgiveness has inspired a rash of opinion pieces, interviews and podcast discussions, some of which are authored by the accused men themselves. In April, for example, NPR On Point host Tom Ashbrook — who was fired from the show after 11 employees accused him of sexual harassment — wrote an emotive, first-person opinion piece for the Boston Globe. After waxing lyrical about the show’s achievements and vaguely acknowledging wrongdoing (“My behavior was offensive and overbearing to some”), he issued a brief apology before imploring his readers to consider the following question: “Is there room for redemption and rebirth, in our time of Google trails and hashtag headlines?”
The question was more or less rhetorical, because comeback season was hot on its heels. Seth Rogen confirmed that the allegations against James Franco wouldn’t affect his willingness to work with him and Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. returned to comedy. Noam Dworman, the owner of the comedy venue that hosted both performances, told the New York Daily News in May that the “general consensus is that [Ansari] was treated unfairly” and that he’s “absolutely welcomed” to take the stage at his venue again. He also extended that welcome to C.K., who he said was worthy of forgiveness. “We generally believe in a path to forgiveness for people who have shown real contrition,” Dworman said, a few short months before C.K. took him up on that offer.
Is contrition all that forgiveness requires, though?
For Dworman, clearly so. But for those who have survived the kind of assaults, abuse and harassment that make up the #MeToo movement, there may be more required.
Case in point: Jessica, a 29-year-old illustrator from Michigan, tells me that she initially had a professional relationship with her undergraduate professor that he repeatedly tried to make personal. “He gave me an A+ that I absolutely did not earn,” she says. “Then he emailed me to say that I was the only one in the class to get that grade, with a YouTube link to a song he thought I’d like.” Jessica explains that she attended a very small school where students and teachers often make friends, so she didn’t think too much of his advances and he ended up entering her social circle. Shortly afterwards, though, things became frightening.
“One night, I invited him to my place when I was close to blackout drunk,” she says. “While we were in my apartment, he offhandedly threatened to rape me if I passed out too early.” After she heard he’d told another woman that he wanted to “fuck her in her sleep,” she started to avoid him, which prompted years of threatening behavior and harassment. “He continued to text me and leave drunk voicemails for several years after I moved across the country,” she says.
Despite the enormous psychological toll and her fear of reprisal, Jessica tells me she was open to the idea of forgiving her abuser under certain conditions. “My initial thought was that he’d need to make a detailed, unprompted public announcement about what he’d done — and say that he’s retiring from teaching for this reason,” she explains. She also says he’d need to start therapy, and disengage from her social circle and any other victims.
For Echo, a 25-year-old graduate student from Pennsylvania, forgiving the man who sexually assaulted her at a college party as a teen would require him to demonstrate some insight and acknowledgement as well. “I’d need him to show a clear and direct recognition of what was done and why it was wrong, and sincerely apologize for those actions,” she says, adding that “a promise to actively avoid being anywhere near me for the rest of my life would be a start — $1 million would seal the deal though.”
Echo was being tongue-in-cheek about the money, but the concept of financial reparations deserves more serious consideration. When women accuse wealthy men of sexual misconduct, a common, knee-jerk reaction is that they’re trying to profit from false accusations — a myth that is demonstrably false. But if the abuse is real, why wouldn’t financial reparations be an appropriate and proportionate response? After all, abuse and harassment costs its victims financially as well as emotionally, and economic precarity makes victims less likely to leave abusive situations in the first place.
For now, though, the movement is dealing with the inevitable backlash. Liam Neeson called the initial wave of allegations a “witch hunt,” and New York Times columnist Bari Weiss characterized the movement’s post-Ansari phase as an “insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex.” Wendy Williams is “sick of” #MeToo. Same for Karl Lagerfeld. Meanwhile, forgiveness and closure are increasingly being framed as imperatives.
But forgiveness can’t be rushed, because atonement takes time. The movement is just a year old — nowhere near enough time for the kind of deep reflection, unforced apology and genuine amend-making that many victims cite as reasonable prerequisites to forgiveness.
Of course, that’s if abusers even bother to try. For all the women who shared their stories with me, the question of forgiveness was hypothetical, because none had received apologies or amends from the men who had so badly hurt them. This is consistent with the public track record of most high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct. They tend to respond to allegations with extracted, deflective apologies at best, and denial and punitive legal action at worst.
Back to the larger question, though: Is forgiveness possible in the #MeToo era? My problem is I’m not sure it’s the right question. Here’s a better one: Are abusers and harassers willing to put in the long, sober effort that forgiveness requires?