Saying You’re Sorry Isn’t Enough Anymore

Maybe the reason the recent wave of apology tours feels so exhausting is because giving forgiveness takes more effort than asking for it.

Had you asked me — or, I think, any number of women — a few years ago what I wanted from the abusive men in my life, I likely would’ve said, “I just want them to say they’re sorry.” Apologies are all I’ve wanted for a long time, both from the men who’ve harassed me in the past or the ones who are still doing it. I’ve wanted apologies in a less tangible way, too: an apology from a culture that allows harassers and abusers to flourish without real consequences.

But I’ve never really gotten one, or even an acknowledgement of wrong action from men who’ve abused or assaulted me, or men I worked with who used their power to keep me small, or the men who let me down by watching it all happen and saying nothing. So before this year, this current wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations becoming public — at least 60 since the Harvey Weinstein story broke this October — I thought that someone telling me they were sorry would make things better, if only slightly. I’m not sure I even cared if they meant it; I just needed to hear the words. I needed proof that they could be goaded into even the most minor self-reflection.

In the last three months, many of us have heard more apologies than we have in our entire lifetimes. Kevin Spacey spun his apology into a coming-out story, confirming a longstanding rumor in a way that felt like a distraction from the allegations of sexual misconduct against a teenage boy. George H. W. Bush also said he was sorry for groping women, but not before saying that he was doing it as a joke. Mario Batali immediately admitted to and apologized for the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against him. Then he fucked it up by attaching a recipe for “Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls” at the end of it. Of all the things to be ruined by abusive men this year, cinnamon rolls were never on my list.

Charlie Rose is sorry; Glenn Thrush is sorry; John Lasseter is sorry; Al Franken is sorry; Jeffrey Tambor is sorry, kind of; Dustin Hoffman was sorry, at least until he got in a fight with John Oliver about the sexual harassment allegations against him on stage. Now, you can’t turn a corner without a man apologizing to womankind at large for something they did.

But the worst apology we’ve seen this Bad Men Apology Season was from the original Bad Man himself: Harvey Weinstein’s vague mea culpa following the multiple harassment, assault, and rape allegations against him was a master class in asking for forgiveness poorly. (In his theoretical defense, he didn’t have so many other examples yet to improve on.) “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s,” he starts, “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” His one-page statement then moves into him acknowledging that he’s been acting poorly, never once directly addressing the women accusing him of brutal acts. He invokes therapy, misquotes Jay-Z, throws money around for a scholarship for female directors, talks about the NRA, and caps it all off with — of course — something about his mom. It is, top to bottom, lousy.

On the opposite side of the spectrum was an apology from Louis C.K., another man who had long been the source of disturbing rumors that were finally confirmed as five women came forward with their stories. His apology was arguably the most evolved we’ve seen in this genre, and therefore the best received (though he still saw repercussions) — likely because C.K. has always been so articulate, and so good at acknowledging his flaws, if only in his stand-up. He addressed the women he harassed directly, admitted that “these stories are true,” acknowledged how he used his power and position in the comedy scene to take advantage of women who were afraid of his influence, and promised to go away for a while. Sure, he never actually said the words “I’m sorry,” but he seemed contrite in his statement. Isn’t that what we want from an apology, anyway? It’s impossible to get immediate retribution or reconciliation, and so the most we can pull from it is the hope that someone will do better in the future.

I thought I wanted apologies, but that’s before I knew what it felt like to get so many of them. 

There’s an established process when a man does something bad and it becomes public: People become upset at the poor behavior of a privileged man who has never been held accountable, and then that man embarks on an apology tour. These tours are sometimes effective (I guess we’re fine with Mel Gibson now?), and sometimes less so (Weinstein was fired from his namesake company), and other times, clumsy or lacking entirely. But in many cases, the way to rehabilitate yourself publicly is simply saying you’re sorry. These men get let off the hook, eventually, and we get to stop feeling so angry at them. (President Donald J. Trump won the election without apologizing for much of anything, even after the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him, and more than a year later women are still doing the work of trying to hold him accountable. He’s so impervious that he thought it reasonable to support a political candidate accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers.)

But the apology tour cycle is rarely satisfying, especially since there are so seldom any real consequences for abusers, as there are for their accusers. Women have spent so long just trying to get men to acknowledge when they’ve done something wrong — remember that for every allegation made public, there are often countless women who have been trying to get people to listen to them for years — and now we have this surplus of apologies without much to do with them. Ben Affleck is real sorry for groping a woman on national television. Russell Simmons “humbly” apologized at the end of November, but not before adding that he was never violent and his accusers “memory of that evening is very different from mine.” (He has since been accused of rape and sexual harassment by even more women.) My cup runneth over with My-Bads.

I thought I wanted apologies, but that’s before I knew what it felt like to get so many of them. I also thought that watching powerful, famous men apologize would make the smaller, less relevant men figure their shit out and say they’re sorry too. That’s certainly happening on some level — I’ve never seen men so terrified of a public reckoning in my life, an anxiety I am happy to foster — but it’s not as gratifying as I hoped it would be. I know of more than a few men in my sphere who started contacting women preemptively, women they knew they were inappropriate with at work, to say they were sorry just in case they were made to feel uncomfortable. Some of the women I know appreciated hearing it. Most just wanted the guy to fuck off.

The catch is that giving forgiveness is more work than merely asking for it. True atonement, an honest attempt to fix something you broke, would involve work invisible to most women. Apologies are, largely, performative, and the ones women have received in the last few months have become burdens unto themselves — and, crucially, pathways for men to shrug off responsibility: I said I was sorry, ball’s in your court now.

I want you to stop yourself before you start. I want you to have retroactively been better.

Years ago, I would have settled for an apology from any man who did something wrong. I would’ve given into a meek plea for forgiveness, tucked tail and all. Now, receiving an apology has the adverse effect that it’s supposed to: It just feels like being asked to process someone else’s regret, and embarrassment, and pain, on top of my own anger and frustration. It sounds like dealing with more work.

In most cases, what I want is rarely words, or even anything I can see or hear. I want to be left alone at a bar, at a work party, on a plane, at a restaurant. I want you to tell the other men in your life that they can’t behave like this. I want you to fire them and stop being their friends and uninvite them from parties, regardless of whether I’m there or not. I want to notice the absence of action — how rarely I have to ask you not to say something crude to me or touch me. I want you to do the quiet, unseen work women do every day to keep ourselves safe, and I want you to do it so automatically that I don’t notice it at all. I want, for five minutes a day, for you to be as uncomfortable as I am almost constantly. I want you to stop yourself before you start. I want you to have retroactively been better.

It might seem unfair that we’ve asked for apologies for so long and, now that we’re getting them, we’re picking them apart — turning up our noses, asking for even more. But if the last three months have taught me anything, it’s that just because an apology is thrown at you doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Every time a man is held accountable for his actions, people wonder if it’s heralding a sea change. Were the Weinstein allegations the mark of a new world order where men can’t abuse women anymore? I’m not yet convinced — the president is the president — but it has at least marked a shift in the language that the accused use in response.

When I was a kid, I would often get in a fight with my stubborn father, small tiffs about my clothing or hair or his tone or my tone that would escalate and turn into a full-on, three-day argument. What would start with a mutually agreed upon silent treatment would turn to me pleading with him for something that seemed so simple to me: “Just say you’re sorry!” This was all I needed, I thought, to end the fight, and instead, he’d remain stoic, and I’d burst into tears and run up the stairs to my bedroom and slam the door. My mom would enter a few moments later to calm me down and remind me, “You know he doesn’t know how.”

Now, men are always apologizing to me. They’re sorry for interrupting me in meetings, for drinking too much and breathing too close, for not paying me enough, for not offering to pay me at all, for spreading their legs out across three goddamn seats on the subway. They’re sorry for what they did in the past, or what they might have done, because most of them don’t even remember. They’re sorry for the actions of other men, as if you get gold stars for atoning for the actions of others. Now they’ll read this essay and apologize to me some more.

Maybe this infuriates me because as a woman, and as a woman of color, and as a woman of color who can’t help but talk, almost constantly, I’ve gotten really good at apologizing. I apologize for emailing too often, I apologize for making people uncomfortable, I apologize for not working fast enough or hard enough. I’m always saying sorry for something, warranted or not. I’m expected to. If I don’t, then I’m difficult to work with or a bitch or condescending or arrogant. And because I apologize so much, I know how easy it is. Do you think it requires some great moral fortitude to say, “I’m sorry?” Saying you’re sorry isn’t heavy lifting. It’s the work that comes after it that counts.

Saying you’re sorry isn’t heavy lifting. It’s the work that comes after it that counts.

But I still have my doubts that these men will actually do anything after the apology. They won’t be careful or conscious, they won’t call out other men for similar behavior, and they won’t change their behavior in the future. Men who say sorry to me now will probably do whatever they’re apologizing for again. Because to them, “sorry” wipes the slate clean, somehow. What these men really want is to be released.

Early last spring, before the levy of sexual harassment allegations broke, I saw the documentary A Better Man. It follows Attiya, a woman looking back at the physically and emotionally abusive relationship she got out of more than two decades before, when she was just 18. The documentary is a gutting and unrelenting examination of how abuse affects both parties, and how her teenage relationship with Steve still impacts her, years later. But much of the documentary focuses on Steve specifically, both in solo sessions with a therapist and in conversations with Attiya. They even travel to see the old apartment they used to share, where much of the abuse occurred. Within the unflinching and uncomfortable hour-and-a-half documentary, Steve is repeatedly forced to acknowledge what he did to someone he loved, and he consistently tries to atone. It is, after all, the least he can do.

But Steve’s answers in A Better Man are never very fulfilling. He doesn’t fully recall events so brutal that it’s hard to imagine how anyone would be able to forget them. (Your ex-girlfriend remembers when you dragged her through shards of broken glass in a fit of rage — why can’t you?) When Attiya talks about Steve putting his hands around her throat, and how she thought this was the way she’d die, and how she assumed that someone must have done the same to him, the counselor asks Steve if he remembers such an event. He swallows hard and says, “I do now.” Visibly uncomfortable and crying, Steve appears hurt by his own behavior. He never puts any responsibility on Attiya, and when confronted, he accepts the blame for the abuse that happened. And despite the lack of tangible closure — because how can Steve ever justify his behavior? — I found A Better Man wildly cathartic and satisfying.

The film does something that no other abuse or forgiveness narrative does, which is divert attention away from getting an apology from Steve. Instead, it follows Attiya as she moves on with her life without knowing if Steve will ever be able to fully confront what he did. There isn’t a lingering question about whether the apology is enough, or whether Steve can be forgiven. The only real question is whether he understands why he did it, whether he will do it again, and whether he can stop another man from repeating the same pattern.

After a slew of long-awaited apologies, I want the women receiving them to be the ones who decide whether they’re acceptable, whether they help in their healing. I’ve since watched the movie three times, as if I’m clawing through it, trying to find forgiveness for my own monsters in it, or trying to crystallize what it is I want from an apology. But it’s not there, because it’s not important. I don’t know if I’m ready to release anyone from their guilt. After every rewatch, I’m relieved that by the end of the movie, Steve isn’t released from his, either.

I know the year is supposed to end with some kind of self-reflection about whether we let these Bad Men back in, when we let them back in, what kind of work is left to be done. I know that technically, I end the year with a lot of what I wanted: for abusive, powerful men to have fallen and for them to have admitted what so many of us knew for so long.

But instead, I end this year of silence-breaking frustrated that we didn’t get more, and frustrated that this shift in how we talk about sexual harassment required so much work from so many women. I am, maybe wrongly, not ready to accept any apologies. I don’t want it to be that easy. I don’t want to do any more work. ●

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