Why public apologies from sexual harassers feel so empty
In the wake of over 30 harassment and sexual assault claims leveled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, we’ve seen a familiar pattern that often follows scandals of this nature. The story breaks. More victims come forward. And then the often-PR-crafted apology is issued.
While Weinstein’s rep Sallie Hofmeister has said that “any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein,” the executive himself did issue an apology last week following the initial story written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for The New York Times, which detailed decades of sexual harassment complaints from several women.
And Weinstein’s apology was not the only one that was issued this week. On October 10th, Ben Affleck issued a statement on Twitter admonishing Weinstein’s abuse of power. Just over 24 hours later, Affleck issued his own apology, after former TRL host Hilarie Burton commented on the time Affleck had groped her breast during an interview.
And then on October 12th, a video resurfaced from the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con in which Jason Momoa said he loved working on Game of Thrones because he “got to rape beautiful women.”
Momoa issued an apology on Instagram that same day.
While it’s encouraging to see these men acknowledging that their behavior is unacceptable and that they regret their actions, these apologies only seem to be issued when they are caught red-handed. And the sooner these actors have projects being released that rely on putting asses in theater seats and a positive response from fans, these public apologies are released at lightning speed, in what seems like a panicked ploy to erase the entire ordeal.
An apology following rape jokes, sexual harassment, or sexual assault is the BARE MINIMUM action necessary, and often even a straightforward apology seems difficult.
Weinstein started his apology with, “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
Really? Women have been human beings since the very first human woman was born, so the go-to “things were different then” is absolutely not an excuse to touch someone without their consent.
You are not entitled to a person’s forgiveness simply because you apologize. When you cause another person pain, their pain does not evaporate as soon as they hear those two words.
For many women, sexual harassment is a daily occurrence. We have lived through endless catcalls, inappropriate comments, non-consensual advances, and much much worse. Right now, the chances are good that you know at least one woman who has been sexually assaulted. Tragically, that’s how often it happens. If, by some miracle, no one you know has lived through the trauma of sexual assault, then Hi. My name is Chrissa, and I was raped when I was 17 years old.
And once you experience first-hand the feeling of someone seeing you or treating you as nothing more than a body to be violated and discarded, you return to that sickening trauma every time stories like this come to light. You feel the pain of these courageous women coming forward, because you know they did so at a great risk to their careers and personal safety.
These stories, whether about Hollywood actors or people in our everyday lives, are extremely triggering for survivors of sexual assault. Our recovery is immediately halted, and we are thrown into the center of the trauma we’ve been trying to escape.
This is why “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. Our society and justice system are set up to protect sexual predators and callously question the motive of a woman seeking justice for violent crimes committed against her. So when men say “I’m sorry” for these predatory acts, all we hear is that they are sorry they got caught. That they are sorry they might lose sponsors or money. That they are sorry their marriages might be destroyed or that their kids will look at them differently. And that it doesn’t matter how much pain the victims are experiencing because of their actions, only that other people now know about it.
I had the honor of speaking to many women about how they feel when these public apologies are issued, and the responses I received echoed this sentiment.
Xiaofan, age 29: “Glad to know you’re jumping on the wagon of feeling ‘ashamed and disgusted’ now that public perception of your persona is in jeopardy.”
Barb, age 55: “Sexual predators are practiced at using whatever words they need to get what they want out of a situation. When I see/read these public apologies, I am sickened. The insincerity oozes from their every word. There is no verbal apology that can rectify that damage. These guys are used to silencing the truth with threats, money, or further abuse. Their apologies are just another means of trying to sweep their transgressions aside as quickly as possible.”
Marie, age 34: “They don’t admit how their actions have made women feel, they don’t address the wider problems of sexism, they don’t express real remorse, in my opinion. The short and sweet ‘apology’ comes across as forced and insincere bc they were caught.”
Samantha, age 30: “My issue with empty apologies are that there are no real consequences for the abuser and yet the survivor has to live with what happened to them forever.”
Danica, age 30: “They usually pull the ‘sex addiction’ card. And before they apologize they spend years/months/weeks saying it’s all false and that the women are lying and seeking something. They smear the people making the claims. It has never once felt genuine.”
Becca, age 25: “It matches the trends of men I’ve known who aren’t famous. Specifically it made me think of my dad. He physically and emotionally abused me for years. He was also a pastor, so he had some level of a public platform. He did this apology cycle many times, usually during a church service from the pulpit. And then we’d have to hug him and ‘forgive’ him, then he would spend the next six months telling us every day that he had apologized and he was sorry, so any other issues were our faults. Generally, the public apologies would happen after he’d been caught out doing something. I think it’s a pattern with abusive men in power – any kind of power. The apology is performative at best and manipulative at worst.”
Suzanne, age 26: “My rapist ‘apologized’ to me as part of his 12-step program and then was angry when I wrote about it and took it back. I’ll never really believe an apology from a predator again.”
Jessica, age 22: “I’ve never seen one that didn’t seem like a perfunctory PR move.”
Stephanie, age 27: “I was living with my aunt and her husband. My aunt was away for a month and I was alone with the husband. One day while I was getting dressed, I discovered a camera set up in my bedroom. It was my birthday. I removed it and stayed out later than usual that night, he called and I put him on speaker. I was with my best friend at the time and we both listened to him apologize and claim mental illness and an inability to control his desires. But something I’ve always wondered was, how long was he evading my most intimate moments? And had I not found the camera, would he be sorry? Would he stop?
The apologies we’ve been seeing lately, they remind me a lot of that. He apologized not because he was genuinely sorry but because he couldn’t handle the public fallout. He’d lose his wife, his business, his ‘good’ name. He never cared about me beyond my body, he never valued me as a human being. It’s the same with these men, it’s the reason they say ‘Oh, I have a daughter!’ Or ‘As a brother…’ They’re unable to value women as they are, outside of relation.”
Sarah, age 31: “All I can think of when I hear or read an apology by someone well-known is the PR person who was paid to generate it.”
Apologies might be easy to issue, but they are pointless without changed behavior.
So I’d like to take this moment to issue an apology to all men who have issued an apology. I’m sorry that you’ve been led to believe a mere apology following abhorrent behavior such as sexual harassment or sexual assault means anything. It doesn’t. You have been severely misguided.
Do better. Speak up and speak out when you see a woman being sexually harassed. And stop committing acts of violence against women that you’ll ultimately have to issue empty apologies for. Only when we stop seeing men being exposed for this behavior will we believe you actually are sorry.