How Not To Apologize For Participating in Rape Culture
Our entire culture needs a crash course in apologizing.
On the one hand, it’s inspiring to see that so many people of privilege are standing up in effort to take responsibility for rape culture, white supremacy, and all the other gross injustices of the world.
On the other hand, it’s easy to feel demoralized by all these apologies because, folks just keep getting it so damn wrong. And not only that, the way they get it wrong sometimes just makes the problems worse.
Take this whole phenomenon of men apologizing for all the ways they’ve been creepy, coercive, abusive, and generally disrespectful of women for instance…
I mean, great, right? The #MeToo campaign seems to be working.
Women are getting through, men seem to be waking up and realizing, “Shit. It’s me. I did this. I fucked women over. I want to own up to this, I want to do better.” And I, for one, am thrilled about this.
The problem is, often these apologies are, ONCE AGAIN, privileging the male experience.
See if you can recognize the difference between the following examples…
“It was me.
In my youth, out of a misplaced desire for closeness I used to try and manipulate women into sleeping with me, sometimes even trying to get women drunk, or making them feel bad if they said no.
I never felt like girls liked me when I was in high school. I always felt like a nerd. My mother was cold and withholding, and I took that out on the women I dated.
I hope the world can forgive me. I’m sorry now and I want to do better.”
“It was me.
I remember one woman in particular who was a friend. She trusted me, we used to study together a lot in college.
One night, she broke up with her boyfriend and was really upset, she was crying, and she kept clutching her stomach; you could see how she really felt physically ill about her break up.
I’d always been attracted to her so I suggested we go to a bar and I kept buying her drinks. Eventually she was too drunk to get home on her own so I took her back to my dorm room.
She was still really upset when we got to the dorm, she kind of slumped over on my bed and I started hugging her and caressing her.
She kept saying no, that she wasn’t ready to be with anyone but her boyfriend, but I kept telling her that she deserved to be comforted. She kept saying no, but I kept pressuring her and she eventually gave in.
Now I realize she probably felt betrayed; like I used her misfortune in order to exploit her weakness. That she couldn’t trust me anymore.
Worse, I realize she probably felt confused about whether or not she’d brought it on herself and that she couldn’t even trust HERSELF anymore.
I realize that in the moment she most needed a friend she could trust, I betrayed her.
Those kinds of wounds are hard to recover from. She might never be able to trust anyone as deeply again.
I made a choice to exploit my friend’s weakness for my own gain. It was one of just many times I made such a choice. I can’t make that up to her. But in the future, I will make choices to listen to women and to respect their boundaries.”
Do you see the difference between those two apologies?
In the first example, the man was apologizing because he felt bad that he’d hurt generic “women”, and then he engaged in a kind of personal introspection about what his reasons for doing so might have been.
While introspection may be valuable work for the man to do with his therapist, it doesn’t really work to dismantle rape culture or patriarchy because it still places primacy on HIS experience as a man.
The first version wasn’t really an apology. It was asking the women he hurt to stop healing their own wounds, WHICH HE GAVE THEM, in order take time to make him feel better about what he did to them.
As far as apologies go, I’d give it a D+.
In patriarchal culture, from literature to film to personal apologies on Facebook, women are often used as a device to help men have transcendental learning experiences: to recognize their own nature, their failings, their heroism, the meaning of their life. (From Phillip Roth to the most recent Blade Runner, the evidence of this is ample).
Somehow, even when men are trying to apologize to women for treating them like sexual objects, they AGAIN treat them like sexual objects by centering their own experience. Rarely are women in our rape culture afforded our own subjectivity.
In the second version of the apology, which I believe is the more successful one, the focus is on the experience of THE WOMAN who is receiving the it.
In the second version, the man is trying to understand her experience and what it meant to her to be betrayed and manipulated.
He is owning up to how he caused that situation. He is not asking her to forgive him, instead, he’s saying what he’s going to do to prevent such a thing from happening again.
Neither the first nor the second example is perfect, and I’m sure there’s much to take issue with in both. But if we’re going to apologize, and we’re going to work together to dismantle patriarchy, then men should, at the very least, try to understand what women experience, instead of navel gazing and trying to legitimize their reasons for hurting others.
Still confused? Here’s another example:
A man who holds a position of authority at a magazine hits on a much younger woman who has just landed a low-level position at the publication. Later, he realizes that he was taking advantage of his position and apologizes.
Which of the two following apologies do more work to restore justice, and also to help him see the error of his ways?
“I’m sorry I hit on you at the office. I was going through difficulties with my relationship at home, and I felt insecure about my attractiveness. I thought if I was with you I would feel better about myself. I know I did wrong, please forgive me.”
(After he makes this public apology, everyone at the office cheers him and tells him what a great job he did for apologizing. If the woman says she is not satisfied with this apology — everyone tells her that she’s being a bitch and missing the point — check out the comments on virtually any post where a man gives an apology — if any woman isn’t satisfied with it, crowds come rushing out to tell her how she’s wrong and is hurting the man unfairly. It’s… truly unbelievable).
“I’m sorry I hit on you at the magazine.
I know that it was your first time working at a major publication; you were probably feeling excited, proud of landing the job, and nervous about doing it well.
When I hit on you, I imagine it put you in a difficult position because if you rejected me, you didn’t know if I would retaliate, but if you accepted my advances, then you would be seen as the office floozy.
Furthermore, since I was already in a relationship, you must have known that I was only interested in you sexually.
I imagine you felt like I, your boss, could only see you as a sexual object, and not an intellectual equal.
Because I hit on you, you would never know if you could turn to me for professional support without also having to think I would want sexual favors in exchange. Because of that, I put your male colleagues at in an advantage, since they wouldn’t have to worry about that kind of exploitation.
My behavior probably went a long way towards undermining your confidence at being taken seriously in the workplace.
After I hit on you, you soon left the job and now I wonder if it was because you felt uncomfortable being there because of me…” etc.
Do you see how in the first version the man apologizes, and uses the apology as a means to center his own experience, and then gets rewarded for it as if he is some kind of hero?
Whereas in the second version the focus of the apology is on HER EXPERIENCE and the consequences SHE had to face as a result of his behavior?
The second version is about HER humanity, the first is about HIS — which only reinforces patriarchy.
My point is, just watch when men give their apologies, and notice if they ever mention how the woman might have felt. Watch them center their own experience and then get pats on the back and bouquets of flowers. Watch women’s experiences get decentered once again.
If you are a man who REALLY wants to end patriarchy and rape culture, then you should try to imagine the female experience; you should pay attention to how the male experience is almost always centered and privileged and then act as an advocate to women to de-center it; you should use your male privilege to speak to other men and show them that recognizing their bad behavior is a STARTING POINT, not the end. Don’t expect women to always be the ones to do the work to point it out. THAT IS YOUR WORK TO DO.
Your work as a man is not to reap bushels of gratitude and praise for telling the world how you have abused your male privilege. Your work is to help dismantle that privilege whenever the opportunity arises.
And I say all of this from a position of humility as someone who probably gets her own apologies wrong about 60% of the time.
Many of the things I mentioned above also and especially hold true when white people attempt to “apologize” to people of color for the systemic oppression and abuse POC have suffered at the hands of white people.
POC are constantly asked to comfort white people for their feelings of distress over behaving in a racist manner.
When white people apologize for their hurtful behavior, they often spend more time explaining their own position than actually trying to imagine or empathize with the experience of the POC.
White people frequenly center their own experience. They minimize the experience of POC. And then, often, they get a big reward from other white people who come out and congratulate them for all the amazing social justice work that they’re doing.
It’s infuriating and insane that these crazy inverted apologies keep happening. You’d think that by this point we’d get it, but somehow, we don’t.
The point here is not about how men, or white people, or anybody else, should feel bad and ashamed over their past behavior.
The point is, if we really feel like we have done something wrong, if we really feel like we have participated in systemic injustice, then more than apologizing, we should be working to ACTUALLY CHANGE OUR BEHAVIOR.
If your apology centers yourself, you need to go back to the drawing board.
This work is scary and hard and humbling. It doesn’t feel good. If it feels good, and you’re getting lots of praise, you’re probably doing it wrong.
But even though this work doesn’t feel good, it’s worth it, because dismantling patriarchy and white supremacy will create a better world for everyone.
As a witch, I believe that we are all responsible for co-creating our world. If you don’t like the way something is, change it. Use your tools. Just make sure you’re using the right tools for the job.