As the avalanche of high-profile sexual assault and harassment controversies in Hollywood, the media and politics continues, a noticeable rhythm has set in: public accusations mount, the man offers a denial or weak apology, and then he fades into the background as soon as the next man is accused.
Before moving on, however, it is worth looking at the eerie similarities between these canned public apologies. Collectively, they expose the mindsets of sexual abusers.
The alleged predators invoke passive verbs, scale to generalities and employ excuses, producing what usually feels like a disingenuous, excusatory apology, at best.
Benjamin Genocchio, who allegedly harassed five women, said, “To the extent my behavior was perceived as disrespectful, I deeply and sincerely apologize.”
This drips with passive undertones, from the qualification of “to the extent” to pivoting to how his actions were “perceived.”
According to one study from the British Journal of Social Psychology, “individuals who were generally more accepting of rape myths used more passive forms to describe the actions of a [sexual assault] than did individuals who rejected rape myths.”
A rape myth is a false permission-giving belief for sexual violence or harassment, such as beliefs that if a person doesn’t fight back they aren’t really raped or that “no” really means “yes.”
It’s no surprise that someone who crosses sexual boundaries would believe rape myths. But it’s troubling when they espouse underlying tenets of rape myths while half-heartedly apologizing.
Other high-profile sexual assaulters have scaled their apologies to generalities.
Al Franken, U.S. senator, said in his apology, “Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions…” [emphases added]
His universalization of this issue is a distancing technique to mitigate his personal blame and pontificate about how “all of us” have fallen short. Franken isn’t the only one who employs this tool.
Charlie Rose, formerly of CBS News, stated, “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past.” [emphases added]
Glenn Thrush, a New York Times white house correspondent accused by four women, commented: “I apologize to any woman who felt uncomfortable in my presence, and for any situation where I behaved inappropriately.”
Phrases like “any woman” in “any situation” are hardly the hallmark of taking personal responsibility.
One study from the journal Psychology, Crime & Law noted that sexual offenders describing their sexual violence “often substituted ‘you’ or ‘we’ for ‘I’ in significantly scaled sections to distance self from actions or words, or to project behavior onto others, who were typically unnamed, or cited as a ‘they.’”
Employing generalities is a nearly universal phenomenon with sexual assaulters.
Then there are excuses ― from blatant ones, like Roy Moore blaming the Democratic National Convention, to more subtle excuses.
Harvey Weinstein infamously sought to shift some blame for his behavior on the fact that he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” While he asserts that this is not an excuse, it still looks like an attempt to justify his behavior.
Several men choose to hide behind “misinterpreted” or “misunderstood intentions.” Chris Savino from Nickelodeon said “it was never [his] intention” to sexually harass his alleged victims. Comedian Louis CK said he had mistakenly believed masturbating in front of female colleagues was okay because he’d asked them first, and Andy Henry, a casting director accused of pressuring women to disrobe in order to get roles, said he only meant “to explore the vulnerability portrayed in a scene” and that he never “consciously intend to hurt anyone.”
In the excuses category, the Kevin Spacey apology is arguably the most egregious.
In his public statement after being accused of assaulting a young male actor, he noted the he did “not remember the encounter,” it was “drunken behavior,” and he declared his life as a “gay man” as if that justified assault.
Combined, these excuses make Spacey’s one of the worst formal apologies for sexual assault of the past decade.
Why are the men accused of sexual assault so bad at apologizing?
Instead of heartfelt, sincere remorse we see statements tinged with disingenuous reflections on society and personal justifications. These men are apologizing because they got caught, not out of genuine contrition.
These male predators need to man up and say sorry without qualification. Sexual entitlement is never acceptable at work, at home, and yes, even in apologies.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.