Why apologizing for sexual assault isn’t enough


Kernel Opinion SIG

The New York Times recently published a column entitled “Eight Stories of Men’s Regret” in which they shared eight men’s stories about their misconduct towards women during high school. Their abuse of the women around them. Their manipulation. How they regret it.

The eight stories were impressive, but even more impressive were the 700+ people who responded to the Times with stories. The hundreds of people who would not go on the record because of the fear that they would lose their jobs, families or reputations. “As much as I want to see this conversation move our country forward, I cannot lose my employment. I cannot lose my reputation,” one of the responders wrote to the Times.

But some men were willing to admit their wrongdoing and call out the cowardice and animalistic instincts that played a part in their misconduct on the record. One man told of his experience being sexually assaulted and through that experience, seeing what was so wrong with what he did to his female classmate while in high school at age 16. He had to be a victim to learn not to be a predator. Another said his unwelcome advance upon a girl helped him come out as gay.

Most of the stories were disgusting recounts of tangled bodies, unwelcome advances, a girl sitting stiff and unresponsive in the back seat of a car at night and of men who stood by silent while their friends pressured unwilling girls into dark pantries.

As always, I admire the Times in their unashamed efforts to lead the national conversation on issues pertinent to social progress. This was a conversation that needed to happen. But I can’t help thinking that the column has inadvertently glorified men who confess their misconduct.

We must be careful to not portray men who choose to confess sexual assault (or any crime) as heroes who are gifting the world with an apology they do not owe. They do owe it. To those they violated, to everyone they will encounter in their lives, to the next generation of men and to our judicial system.

The problem with this new narrative that gives men credit for having a change of heart is that by the time they change, they are safe in the eyes of the law. The statute of limitations varies by crime and by state, but in many cases, there are only a few years in which a predator can be held accountable. For example, misdemeanor sex abuse has a statute of limitations of only one year in Kentucky. For misdemeanor sex abuse with a minor in Kentucky, it is only five years after the victim turns 18.

In the Times’ column, we can hear the regret in the men’s stories. The heartfelt, “I’m sorry, Diane” that ends the column and concludes the eight stories is certainly a tear-jerker, but it’s not enough. The men who confessed faced no repercussions for doing so. They were safe, and they knew it. By allowing them to tell their accounts on a large platform, they have been given the opportunity to “free” themselves of the burden of knowing they are assaulters.

The victims in each of these cases have suffered in silence for years, getting no such closure. Perhaps they’ve had a biweekly meeting on the couch of a psychiatrist’s office. Perhaps they never found love because they couldn’t trust men. Perhaps they turned to drugs or crime to deal with their hurt. Perhaps— probably— nobody believed them.

Regret is not enough. The eight men whose stories went into this column represent a bigger problem: Nothing is changing. In their accounts, a theme is repeated: “I needed to do this,” “I felt like I had a right to touch…” and “I think I did it because she seemed otherwise out of reach for me.” There is this theme of male entitlement. This idea that men have the right to do as they please with women’s bodies. That attitude is still alive and well in men around the world.

Many of these men are going on the record in their old age. Their sons are grown. Their sons haven’t learned. Men haven’t learned. This is still happening. And as long as we are content as a nation to see the world through a man’s perspective, it will keep happening.