Every year during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I speak on college campuses about sexual violence in the U.S. Each school is different, but there’s one question I’ve heard some iteration of over and again at almost every single venue: What can men who have been outed by #MeToo do to make things right?
It’s a reasonable question. Unlike so much of the backlash shrouded as concern over men’s “ruined lives” and futures, feminists should be grappling with what an appropriate model of repentance might look like.
It’s not that I’m interested in paving the way for comebacks from the men who have hurt women or focusing on how men can move forward with their lives rather than wondering the same for their victims. I’m interested in what accountability might look like because I think it would help victims who are still in pain.
The problem, however — and what I tell students who ask me — is that I don’t have a good answer. Because we have yet to see a man really try.
Of all of the high-profile men who have been accused of sexual misbehavior — from violent assaults to indecent exposure — not one has demonstrated a sustained or serious commitment to making amends. There have been no large public donations to organizations that fight sexual violence, no volunteer hours put in at women’s shelters, no discussion of books read or advice taken.
Why is it so hard to just issue a sincere apology?
There have barely even been apologies — save for the requisite publicist-written statements these men are forced to issue after their name has been trending on Twitter for a few days. Far from taking responsibility, their responses tend to thread the needle of seeming contrite while not really admitting wrongdoing. Mario Batali appeared to take his “apology” so seriously that he included a recipe for cinnamon buns with it.
Even those men who haven’t been accused of doing anything illegal — just uncomfortable — seem hesitant to take any true responsibility for their actions that made women feel uneasy or humiliated. After multiple women expressed discomfort with former Vice President Joe Biden’s handsiness, Biden said he understood that norms were changing and that he had to listen to what women were saying. Yet, less than a week later, he was on stage putting his arm around a boy’s shoulder, joking that he had “gotten permission” this time.
Why is it so hard to just issue a sincere apology? My sense is that, in part, it’s because a lot of these men don’t think they’ve done something wrong to begin with or that they feel entitled to forgiveness with the same vigor that they felt entitled to women’s bodies and attention — and how dare we not give it to them immediately.
What abusive or even ill-behaving men don’t seem to realize is that trying to make amends meaningfully would benefit them far more than childish foot-stomping. Because while conservative pundits and a backlash-driven media paints accusers as out to ruin men’s lives, I actually believe many people would be satisfied with a sincere apology. Women have been gaslit for so long into believing that abuse didn’t actually happen — by society and their abusers — a simple acknowledgement that it happened and was wrong would go a long way.
James Safechuck, one of the men who accused Michael Jackson of molesting him as a child, said something recently that has stuck with me: “Forgiveness isn’t a line you cross, it’s a road you take.”
If only more men would take it.