Apologizing For Predatory Behavior Requires More Than Saying 'I'm Sorry'

Sexual abuse survivors and restorative justice experts discuss "good" and "bad" apologies.

In 2011, Angie’s* male colleague at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History brought her into an isolated hallway and grabbed her butt without her consent. A few months later, the research student received a brightly colored card with “swirly little designs” from her offender, then-Ph.D. student Miguel Pinto, that read, “I’m so sorry.”

Sitting alone in her office at the time, Angie said she felt “just so indignant at the stupidity and absurdity” of Pinto’s apology. “This is a card you could give to an acquaintance of yours whose goldfish died,” the scientist, now in her early 30s, told HuffPost over the phone. “I felt it trivialized the issue.”

Pinto eventually admitted to groping Angie at a museum happy hour event, both to his boss and in an interview with The Verge, but he claimed the act constituted “flirting” rather than sexual assault. During the five years following the incident ― until Pinto was finally banned from the museum in 2016 after other allegations piled up against him ― Angie told The Verge that “oftentimes I could barely function because I was so despondent.” She said that instead of acknowledging how much his behavior had affected her, or promising he would change, Pinto never addressed the assault again.

“He lied to a woman who was younger than him to get her alone and then grabbed her ass,” she said. “The idea that he could truly be sorry seemed absurd.”

Over the past month alone, the world has witnessed a slew of public mea culpas from men who have been ousted as sexual predators. Charlie Rose, who was accused by eight women of sexual harassment Monday, told The Washington Post, “I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior. I am greatly embarrassed.” After Democratic Sen. Al Franken was accused Thursday of groping and forcibly kissing a radio anchor, he issued an apology and said he felt “disgusted” with his behavior. Both Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. expressed “remorse” after women accused them of sexual harassment in The New York Times. And Kevin Spacey said of Anthony Rapp’s sexual misconduct allegation against him: “If I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology.”

Critics have derided those statements as being insincere (Rose and Weinstein both denied some of the accusations against them), egotistical (How many times did Louis C.K. have to reference his own fame?) and deflective (Did Spacey really need to come out as gay in an apology for sexual misconduct?). And indeed they are far from perfect.

Apologizing for sexual harassment or assault is a complicated process. Victims often do want some form of recognition from their offenders, especially when he ― and it usually is a he ― was the only other witness to the incident. “Victims are ... craving for acknowledgement that it happened,” said Tod Augusta-Scott, a counselor who works with male offenders of sexual and domestic violence in Canada. “[They want] him not to deny it, not to minimize it and not to blame them.”

But, as explained via email by Lori Haskell, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in sexual violence, “a bad apology can [make] a survivor feel enraged and hopeless. A positive one is a beginning, a crack of hope of being understood or acknowledged.”

Brisk apologies issued so quickly after the fact, like those of high-powered celebrities and the one Angie received from Pinto, conflate knee-jerk regret with actual responsibility ― something that requires much more time and energy.

“Victims, in my experience, virtually never believe an apology that is immediate,” said Mary Koss, a public health professor who has worked closely with victims and perpetrators of sexual assault in Arizona. “What are you going to do to repair the harm you caused a victim? How are you going to change yourself so you don’t do this again? Those [questions] can’t be [answered] in 24 hours.”

These kinds of quick apologies can be a selfish act, “often more for the responsible person and not the victim,” Koss said. “They realize they did something wrong and they want to put it behind them and earn redemption.”

Haskell added: “An apology needs to be an offering, not a veiled request to the survivor to ‘Accept this and make me feel better.’ Enough has been taken [from the victim] and asking for something more is part of the same entitled dynamic.”

““A bad apology can [make] a survivor feel enraged and hopeless."”

Two years after a man Allison* briefly dated attempted to rape her during a night of heavy drinking, she received an email from him. Though they had never spoken in detail about the incident, the man told her he was sorry for his behavior. “That apology was more about his guilt and his discomfort with being the kind of person who does this,” the 28-year-old based in Toronto said. “It was like a blip, an ‘I’m going to say “I’m sorry” and put it behind us.’”

In response, Allison told her abuser that she forgave him. But she didn’t feel any sense of closure or relief herself. “I really felt like I was giving him a gift and that I was showing grace,” she said. “A full apology is: ‘I’m sorry. What I did was wrong. I’m going to change and here’s how I’m going to change.’”

Allison said she remained saddled with the trauma that someone she liked and trusted had violated her, which took a devastating toll on her self-confidence. “[His apology provided] no support for me going through what I had to go through to get past it,” she said. “It’s not like apologizing to someone you’ve punched. It’s a huge sort of emotional violation and I think talking about what you need out of an apology involves talking about the trauma and what you actually put the person through.”

In the legal world, the process through which a counselor helps a survivor and offender mediate an incident is called restorative justice. Most organized restorative justice programs in the United States focus on low-stakes crimes such as juvenile offenses, but there are survivor impact panels in Portland, Oregon, that require domestic violence offenders to listen to unrelated survivors describe their experiences, and restorative circles in Duluth, Minnesota, where survivors, community members and offenders can discuss how the latter should be held responsible for abuses. In many restorative justice programs, accountability plans are developed with input from the survivors and usually include a combination of counseling, volunteer work and in some cases, financial restitution.

According to Augusta-Scott, even without the structure of a formal program, one of the basic goals of restorative justice ― the desire to facilitate real accountability ― can be achieved in individual therapy sessions and private conversations with offenders. One on one, the counselor can help those who want to take responsibility for their past behavior “reach out to the individual [survivors] and ask them, ‘What is your experience of what happened and what were the effects of what happened? What would help repair and heal the harms that you’re outlining? What can I do to be part of the solution?’”

Augusta-Scott said the male offenders he encounters typically fail to realize the impact of their behavior ― the trauma, the fear and the pain they’ve caused ― until they’ve listened to a survivor’s recollection of their experience. In fact, he pointed out, offenders themselves often misremember incidents altogether. (When Louis C.K. reached out to one of his accusers to apologize, he ended up expressing regret over an entirely different offense involving an entirely different woman.)

“Putting the apology in front of knowing what they actually did makes it kind of hollow,” Augusta-Scott said, “because when an offender apologizes first, and asks questions later, you really don’t know what you’re actually apologizing for. You haven’t studied it yet or listened yet.”

“In a society that has an uneven history of believing victims of sexual harassment and assault, the act of apologizing can still be a powerful first step.”

If survivors are interested in having a dialogue, Augusta-Scott said they should also be the ones to define what accountability means. For example, when Molly* was assaulted by a genderqueer person in 2012, she told them exactly what she needed in a Facebook message: “Acknowledge what you did, tell me you’re not going to do it again or that you’re going to try and work harder not to do it in the future, and say you’re sorry for how shitty it felt.”

Molly’s offender subsequently took responsibility for their actions in a way that was “kind and fairly generous,” she said, but the 30-year-old later heard about and witnessed that person groping or forcing others into intimate situations. “The apology was perfect on paper,” she said. “But the actions never really fit with the words.”

A key aspect of accountability involves taking concrete actions, Koss said. When she ran a restorative justice program for sexual assault crimes, she said victims cared more about knowing their offenders were committed to change than hearing the words “I’m sorry.”

“[Survivors want] to be assured that the person is getting legitimate psychological care that will prevent this [crime] from happening to other people,” Koss said. “They [want] to make sure this person isn’t going to come after them.” They want to hear “it’s not your fault and you did nothing to deserve this.”

In some cases, victims might not even want an apology ― or any contact at all. Claire*, a 27-year-old who was sexually assaulted in her first semester of college while she was trying to sleep, sees little value in an apology. “It won’t give me back any time I lost, or money I spent, or relationships I damaged while I was trying to cope,” she explained in an email. “[But my offender] could hold himself accountable by acknowledging what he did and [go] to counseling to figure out why he did it ... Did he assault anyone after me? Was I the first person he assaulted? These are all things to consider when looking at his ability to accept responsibility. He has to be the one to make sure this never happens again.”

Other survivors might want to be personally involved in their offender’s process of owning up to their behavior. When Attiya Khan’s ex-boyfriend told her “I’m sorry” 11 years after he beat her up on a daily basis, she saw it as an opportunity to hold him accountable on her own terms. The now-43-year-old Canadian asked him to participate in a film that she co-wrote and co-directed, in which they had mediated conversations about his abuse in front of a camera. He agreed, and over the two-year course of shooting together, Khan said the most important part of the process was having him listen to her descriptions of the violent episodes. (The resulting documentary, “A Better Man,” debuted in New York earlier this month, and will play in Canada throughout November. Sarah Polley is an executive producer.)

“The words ‘I’m sorry’ were not important to me,” Khan said. “It was more about me being able to tell him exactly what it was he had done. There was something very satisfying about that for me.”

In a society that has an uneven history of believing victims of sexual harassment and assault, the act of apologizing can still be a powerful first step. But saying “I’m sorry” is not a panacea. As more and more victims come forward with their stories of abuse, it’s important to talk about what real accountability looks like. For many survivors, that process involves settling on an individual path of restorative justice that makes sense, for them and their abuser. For perpetrators, it involves more than spoken words and written statements.

There are hopeful signs, at least on paper, that high-profile apologies from celebrity men could lead to real change. Louis C.K. said he “will now step back and take a long time to listen.” Franken said, “I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.”

Let’s hope those statements amount to concrete commitments rather than empty words.

*Name has been changed, or a last name has been omitted.

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