When we think of those guilty of sexual assault and abuse, we tend to be reminded of some of the most vile and morally corrupt figures in our lives and in the news.
As someone who has always highly respected women, I never imagined I could be remotely associated with this issue.
It turns out, I was wrong.
This realization came about after a former classmate of mine, Robyn Swirling, published a piece titled “I Was Labeled The High School ‘Slut.’ It Affected My Whole Life” on HuffPost Personal late last month.
The article details how fabricated rumors about her supposed promiscuity spread throughout our middle school and led to years of sexual harassment and abuse.
Many of her offenders were young men we grew up with in Bethesda, Maryland ― the same hometown as Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford.
It had been more than 15 years since Robyn and I were in contact. I was so deeply moved by her story that I sent her a message on Facebook.
I thanked her for having the courage to access those dark memories and for sharing them with the world. I playfully acknowledged that we had been “boyfriend and girlfriend” for about a week or two in middle school.
I gently asked if I had, in any way, contributed to her trauma. I expected a lighthearted response. I certainly never anticipated what I read.
She replied that, in fact, I had.
I’ll never forget how shocked and speechless I felt in that moment. I was unable to move.
I was also very confused. Robyn and I were not particularly close and I could not think of a single instance that she could be referencing. My mind was racing as my heart pounded in my chest.
“I consider myself extremely considerate of others. Now 32 years old, I’m a devoted husband and father, a mindful business person, and an outward advocate for social equality. How could I be capable of sexual misconduct of any kind?”
I consider myself extremely considerate of others. Now 32 years old, I’m a devoted husband and father, a mindful business person, and an outward advocate for social equality. How could I be capable of sexual misconduct of any kind?
As I sat stunned by this news, it didn’t take long for me to rationalize that victims of any kind of trauma are more likely to vividly remember events than offenders. I apologized to her but wasn’t entirely ready to accept ownership.
Although it was late at night and I had family visiting for my son’s birthday party, I immediately requested a phone call. I knew that I would not be able to rest until I had more information.
The next day, Robyn and I spoke over the phone. She recounted a moment we shared in middle school that left her feeling hurt and emotionally scarred. I have a sharp memory, yet still could not recall this taking place.
However, she included a few minor details that gave me clues that she was not making this up. Why would she? I believed her.
We discussed how it is common for offenders of abuse to be entirely unaware of the weight of their actions. What may seem like harmless and playful behavior can easily be perceived differently by others and can cause serious damage.
We also discussed how cultural influences such as movies, music and peer pressure can play a massive role in shaping male mentalities to seek sexual conquests.
I’ve never had a history of violence or overly aggressive behavior, yet my careless actions at 14 years old had left a permanent scar on Robyn’s life. For that, I can never apologize enough.
As our call ended, I told Robyn that, moving forward, my life would likely never be the same. I was willing to do anything in my ability to make this better.
I was devastated to learn that I had inflicted lasting pain on another person.
This experience forced me to reflect on my past and think hard about other women I may have failed. If I was capable of unintentionally hurting her, surely I may have similarly affected others throughout my life.
“It’s my hope that more men will be inspired to reach out to women they may have harmed. To ask if they had been hurt. And, if so, to sincerely apologize and offer to help -- if possible and wanted.”
The next day, I sent messages to a few women with whom I shared intimate moments growing up. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t crossed any lines and pressured them to a point of discomfort.
I mentioned that if I had hurt them, I was sincerely sorry for my reckless behavior. I was eager to listen, learn and help in any way.
I was relieved that the responses I received were appreciative and assured me that I had been respectful. What happened next was astounding.
My high school classmate Sasha Tozzi asked my permission to share our conversation on Facebook. After consulting with my wife, I agreed.
We were extremely surprised to witness an overwhelming flood of positive reactions as Sasha’s Facebook post received hundreds of uplifting interactions.
The vast majority of the comments were from women expressing deep gratitude. Many saw hope in our exchange and stated how they could only dream the men from their pasts might extend this sentiment.
It was amazing to see such a simple gesture regarding an uncomfortable subject become a powerful message in how we can begin to heal wounds and bridge our gender divides.
It’s my hope that more men will be inspired to reach out to women they may have harmed. To ask if they had been hurt. And, if so, to sincerely apologize and offer to help ― if possible and wanted.
I believe this can help spark a cultural shift to bring about the change we need to grant women the respect they deserve.
Women have spent far too long coming forward and saying #MeToo. It’s time for men to step up, take responsibility for their actions and say #ImSorry.
The past week has been challenging for me, but I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity for learning and growth.
And to Robyn: Once again, I’m sorry. But, also, thank you.