Secular Confession

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I was privy to the confession of a stranger the other day. By “privy” I mean that it was left under one of my comments on a friend’s Facebook wall.

I didn’t ask for it. The topic was consent for sexual activity and trying to explain why certain ways of talking about confirming consent are creepy as hell. I said something about how being simplified to bright lines and machine schematics can be dehumanizing that some people found helpful. This guy decided my comment was his perfect opportunity to talk about nearly having raped someone when young and drunk. I don’t understand or particularly care to understand the connection.

I didn’t want it. I just kept getting the notifications for the resulting conversation in email, while I was out to dinner with friends with no Facebook app on my phone and borderline service that meant Facebook was unwilling to load in my browser. Facebook doesn’t always obey when you tell it to shut off notifications, but I couldn’t even tell people to take it elsewhere. I just kept seeing the light on my phone blink as each new message came in. It was distracting and distressing.

I didn’t have a response to it. Part of the reason I studied rape trauma in college is that I’ve been assaulted. Alcohol was involved in making me vulnerable. I am and always will be my first priority when the topic is being discussed, both because of the original assault and because I’ve been treated like crap for talking about it. When given the opportunity, I’ll turn down listening even to other victims because I don’t have much in the way of resources to offer. Here, I chose not to tell my friends what was happening, so I could at least keep it contained to my phone.

My friend also declined to off this guy whatever he was looking for in response to his confession. They continued to put consent front and center instead. Eventually, this guy deleted all his comments and left the conversation in a rather permanent way.

The whole thing was ugly and invasive. What it was not was unique.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have treated my writing or speaking about issues related to consent as though it were an invitation to tell about times when they’ve failed to live up to the standards I’ve set. I refuse to think about the number of people who have taken discussions about rape as an invitation to tell me that they raped or were accused of raping someone. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s common enough that I don’t bring up the topic unless I’m prepared for it. (Usually. I let my guard down answering my friend’s question.)

In case anyone has read this far without figuring this out: Don’t do this. This is not acceptable. The point of a discussion about how to talk about consent or how to deal with the aftermath of assault is figuring out how to do things better as a society, how to teach people better and how to hold people to better standards. It isn’t about putting a person who has fucked up or thinks they may have fucked up front and center and coaching them personally.

And yet.

Confession is important. It serves a multitude of purposes both for the individual and the community. The problem with what happened isn’t that the fellow confessed to his prior misdeeds. The problem is actually that he undervalued confession even as he claimed it. Given confession’s religious roots, that’s not surprising, but we still can’t let it stand.

The model of confession most of us in the U.S. are familiar with is Catholic. It’s dim booths and nominal anonymity promised confidentiality and penance made directly to God. When we reject that last part of confession, we all too often reject the whole idea. This isn’t the only useful part of religion we throw out with the tainted bathwater, but it is particularly harmful.

Photo of lower half of face with finger to the mouth in a shushing gesture.
“Naughty Secrets IMG_0781” by Steven Depolo, CC BY 2.0

As I mentioned, confession comes with benefits. For an individual, keeping secrets about the harm we’ve done others tends to make that harm loom larger than it really is. It’s statistically impossible for so many of us to be the uniquely grotesque monsters we think we are. Confession gives us the opportunity to see this, to put our “sins” in the context of everyone else’s mistakes, thoughtless moments, and petty cruelties. It gives us perspective that the conscientious among us desperately need.

Confession also removes barriers between us and our communities. When we think we’re the worst (and we’re wrong, as most of us are), it inhibits our interactions with those around us. How can we invest in others when they could find out what we’ve done and shun us for it? Confession allows us a respite from that fear. When we tell another person who we are and aren’t rejected, it’s easier to trust that we can do it again. We gain the freedom and security to give.

On top of that, confession is often a necessary prerequisite to obtaining counsel. Sometimes we have to be able to talk about where we’re coming from in order for someone to know what we need to get where we want to go. Directions are more useful if they relate to a known starting point. For example, explaining good practices of consent is easier and more effective when you know what misconceptions a person starts with. Had that Facebook thread been a learning thread, and had the person making the confession been looking for advice instead of trying to give it (ahem), their confession would have been warranted.

We as a society have an interest in all these functions of confession as well. It doesn’t help us to have our most conscientious members paralyzed by the fictional enormity of their past acts. When people are contrite about their past behavior, we do want them to be able to participate in building our communities. And we do much better at preventing future bad behavior when we can learn about why that behavior happens in the first place. Providing confession is not a wholly altruistic act.

The problem with what happened on Facebook wasn’t the confession. Confession is, broadly speaking, a good thing. If anything, the problem was not taking confession seriously enough as a service.

Speaking in feminist terms, the act of hearing confession is emotional labor. It involves careful listening, reserving judgment, and balancing the interests of the person confessing with those of the person listening, which may be personal or communal. It involves assessing guilt and feelings of guilt and, usually, offering counsel or penance that both suits the “crime” and satisfies the emotional needs of the person confessing.

This is why dropping a confession of near-rape into a discussion of consent is so wrong. There is already emotional labor being done in that discussion, and the confession changes the focus of that labor without asking. On top of that, people in a consent thread are often people who have experienced rape or other sexual assault, making all of the emotional labor required for confession more taxing. Nothing about the situation treated the people to whom this guy confessed as people performing a valuable service for him.

So what does it look like when we take confession seriously as needed labor? We can look to religious models as a start at answering that question, both classic Catholic confession and the less formal pastoral counseling.

First of all, confession happens in a given time and place. The person hearing confession isn’t accosted on the street. (Okay, yes, this happens sometimes with pastoral counseling, but it’s expected that the pastor in question will complain and ask that it not happen again.) They are able to prepare themselves for the work, and the space in which confession happens is usually designed to facilitate it.

There are rules or at least norms about how confession will be treated that limit the decisions the person receiving confession has to make. Confessors know what they’re responsible for doing with the information given to them. They know that it isn’t their responsibility to exhaust themselves to make the person confessing feel better but to offer a prescribed range of solutions in response. This is more important than it may seem from the outside, particularly given the emotional content of confession. That most of the options open to priests involve repairing a person’s relationship to God doesn’t change the broader point.

After confession is over, there are mechanisms of care for the confessor. I won’t say these are close to universal, and I’m hazy on the details of any particular denomination, but there are models in religious traditions that we could use.

If we’re going to replace confession informally in secular communities, we need to do at least as well as in religious communities. We need to give people an opportunity to set the time and terms of hearing confession, and we need to care for the people who provide that service. Deciding we don’t need confession because it’s a religious thing isn’t enough. Based on their behavior, at least some nonreligious people do still need it.

Luckily, there is also already a better model. One of the things professional therapy does is provide opportunities to access the same personal benefits afforded by confession. It often provides the community benefits as well, because one of the points of distress that leads people to seek therapy is alienation from their community.

So, yay, therapy, right?

Well, this is one of the problems we run into when atheist communities* lean toward rejecting social sciences. It’s also a problem when atheist communities lean toward rejecting emotion as irrationality. We don’t stop having emotions. We don’t stop needing to deal with them. We just stop reaching for effective, evidence-based ways to do that.

Then confession breaks out in the most inappropriate places. So how about we start thinking about how to incorporate the necessary benefits of confession into our communities for the people who need it?

*Yes, they exist. No, I don’t need to know if you don’t think you need one.

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Secular Confession
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One thought on “Secular Confession

  1. 1

    Further evidence of the need for secular confession is all over the internet, particularly on sites like Reddit and Imgur. The latter actually has an established meme, known as Confession Bear–there’s a picture of a bear, looking as if it’s lamenting something, with a brief bit of text outlining the confession; usually further details are posted beneath in the image description area. There’s also the “Postcard Secrets” website.

    Even if only a fraction of these posts are legitimate and sincere, people are literally pouring out their secrets to anonymous, faceless strangers on the internet, looking for advice, counsel and absolution.

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