In 2015, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz went viral for carrying a mattress around campus to protest her alleged rapist, fellow Columbia student Paul Nungesser. In response to the allegations, Nungesser claimed the sex between him and Sulkowicz was consensual, citing friendly Facebook messages from Sulkowicz after the alleged assault as proof.
When asked why Sulkowicz messaged Nungesser after the alleged assault, Sulkowicz told Mic's Julie Zeilinger that it was her way of processing the trauma of her abuse. "I was upset and confused... I wanted to have a talk with him to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent," she said.
Sulkowicz's point was clear: while sending a Facebook message to her attacker perhaps didn't conform to our perception of how a rape victim "should" behave after an assault, it did not make her reaction to her trauma any less valid. It's a message our culture could stand to heed when dealing with rape survivors, as well as one that's hammered home by the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, in which Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) deals with the aftermath of her rape by the prison guard Coates (James McMenamin) — not by enacting revenge, or by cutting him out of her life, but by forgiving him.
After Coates rapes Pennsatucky in a van in season three, Pennsatucky is gripped by feelings of sadness and rage, which eventually spur her to plan an elaborate rape revenge fantasy with her friend and fellow inmate Big Boo (Lea DeLaria). After the plan falls through, Pennsatucky fakes a seizure so she'll no longer have to be on work duty with Coates. Yet when she confronts him about her assault in season four, something perplexing happens: he apologizes and denies having raped her in the first place, claiming that what happened in the van was an act of love.
Baffled by this response and still haunted by the memory of her assault, Pennsatucky decides to take the path of least resistance and forgive her attacker; in fact, they even continue to hang out, with Pennsatucky overtly coming onto him when they're alone in the kitchen. To do so, she spins an elaborate web of justifications for his behavior, all of which are taken straight out of the rape apologists' playbook: "What if he's just like a regular person who made a mistake, right?," she tells Big Boo. "I mean, come on, we both know that I'm not innocent."
Victim-blaming rhetoric aside, to a certain extent, Pennsatucky is right; Coates is deeply remorseful of violating her trust, and it becomes clear later on in the season that he is wracked with guilt over his violent sexual impulses. While that doesn't excuse his actions, the fact that the show frames Coates in a semi-sympathetic light — and the fact that Pennsatucky is perceptive enough to recognize him for who he is — is subversive in itself.
That said, Big Boo is understandably outraged by the fact that Pennsatucky decides to forgive her attacker, abruptly ending their friendship as a result. For Big Boo, Pennsatucky's response deviates so far from the acceptable reaction to sexual trauma — crying, screaming, issuing solemn vows of vengeance — that she cannot even make sense of it.
Yet this type of reaction is not uncommon among sexual assault survivors processing their trauma — not because it is simply easier or more expedient to not hold a grudge, or because of a near-evangelical allegiance to the power of Christian forgiveness, but because it is just as valid a way for survivors to process sexual trauma as any other part of the recovery process.
"He took a piece of my soul then."
In a 2014 xoJane essay, writer Suzanne Samin recounted how she forgave her rapist after he approached her as part of a 12-step program. For Samin, forgiving her attacker was an instrumental part of getting closure.
"He took a piece of my soul then, and I knew forgiving him would never bring it back, but that it might allow my soul to grow around where it once was, like a great tree split in half by an unforgiving bolt of lightning," Samin writes.
Not surprisingly, xoJane commenters were highly skeptical of Samin's piece, responding with incredulity at best and outright vitriol at worst. "I would definitely punch him in the face, regardless of his intentions to apologize," one wrote. "I don't believe you have to be the bigger person when it comes to your rapist."
We tend to have a fixed idea of the "perfect" rape survivor — someone with a trembling, quiet dignity who is determined to get comeuppance using any means necessary. Yet as Samin's narrative and Pennsatucky's story amply demonstrate, there is no such thing as the "perfect" rape recovery process, just as there is no such thing as the "perfect" rape survivor. For some people, it might be years, if not decades, of therapy and self-defense classes; for others, it might be curling up for a few nights with a bottle of wine and Friends on Netflix.
For Pennsatucky and for Samin and for Sulkiewicz, the path to recovery was acceptance of what has happened to them and forgiveness, if not outright redemption, of their attackers. And we cannot judge them for their reactions anymore than we can judge them for having been attacked in the first place.