Sorry, not sorry: 3 years into #MeToo era, real apologies are few and far between
Law professor finds mostly defences and denials in 219 statements from people accused of sexual harassment
Warning: This story contains graphic details
It happened at the end of a long shift serving tables at Earls restaurant in Regina.
Mary, not her real name, stopped by the general manager's office to hand over cash and credit card slips.
"I asked him if there was anything else he wanted me to do before leaving work, and he goes, 'Just suck my c—k and you'll be good,'" she said.
Mary is one of 17 women who came forward last month and accused Jim Demeray, a high-profile mental health advocate and former restaurant manager, of verbally sexually harassing young female staff on a daily basis during his time at two Earls restaurants in Regina.
Demeray, who has since resigned from his position with the mental health organization UnderstandUs, called the allegations "baseless and untrue."
"That was a slap in the face," Mary said. "Honestly he could have said, 'I'm sorry. I worked in the restaurant industry, it was six years ago, I've changed, I've grown.' But he didn't."
But in an era when so many apologies are fraught with defensiveness and denial, would "sorry" make a difference? Does one person's resignation lead to any systemic change?
If one measures the success of the #MeToo movement by taking "a head count of the number of prominent people who have been fired, sued, prosecuted, or forced to resign as a result of #MeToo claims … the movement is certainly a failure," said Charlotte Alexander, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a former employment lawyer.
We have seen a lot of public apologies that are slippery, sleazy, dishonest, gaslighting and really totally void of accountability.- Dr. Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author
The list of shamed men may seem long — movie producer Harvey Weinstein, presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, former Canadian senator Don Meredith, Toronto theatre founder Albert Schultz and more — but in reality, the number of people who have been held accountable on some level is a tiny fraction of those who have perpetuated sexual harassment and unwelcome sexual behaviour in the workplace.
Alexander decided to study more than 200 public statements made by people accused of work-related sexual harassment and misconduct since the #MeToo movement began in October 2017 to determine whether their words offer any hint of individual or structural change.
"The text offers up little hope," Alexander concluded in her paper, "Sorry (Not Sorry): Decoding #MeToo Defences," slated for publication this fall in The Texas Law Review.
She found only a third of the statements offered an apology of any kind and most included denials or defences.
A breakdown of her findings in a moment, but first, why apologies matter.
Don't ask for forgiveness, says psychologist
Dr. Harriet Lerner is a psychologist and author of Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
"When done right, the apology is deeply healing," said Lerner. "A good apology can help free the hurt person from life-draining anger, bitterness and pain. It validates their reality."
Lerner says people resist giving apologies because we're all "wired for defensiveness."
"There are certain emotions that we are wired to try to deny or avoid, like shame, like guilt," she said. "We need to protect a certain image of our own self and defensiveness is part of surviving in this world … It really gets us into trouble when we need to apologize."
Actor Kevin Spacey's apology triggered even more anger. The two-time Oscar winner was accused of trying to seduce actor Anthony Rapp when he was just 14 years old.
Spacey posted on Twitter, "[I]f I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology," then went on to say he didn't remember the alleged encounter from 30 years earlier and would have been drunk.
Then, Spacey chose that moment to come out as gay, which was slammed by many in the LGBTQ community who said it distracted from the allegations of sexual assault.
Lerner says a good apology clearly states what someone did wrong, but most people muck it up by inserting explanations, 'ifs' and 'buts,' and by asking for forgiveness.
"In a real apology, one doesn't ask for forgiveness. A real apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive," she said.
The psychologist hasn't been impressed by the flood of public apologies, and non-apologies, in the #MeToo era.
"We have seen a lot of public apologies that are slippery, sleazy, dishonest, gaslighting and really totally void of accountability," she said.
Defences and denials
In Alexander's research, she separated 219 public statements into four categories — full admission, full denial, defence, and other — then she examined the text for apologies, emotion, authenticity, and any acknowledgement of structural issues, such as power imbalances and the need for change.
Even statements that had apologies, often included a defence too.
Among the most popular defences, the accused would argue that there was a difference in perception of what happened, that the accused's actions were not violent, not illegal, and had not resulted in any previous complaints, that it was a joke or that "times have changed."
The "it was a different time" defence was put forward most famously by movie producer (and now convicted rapist) Harvey Weinstein in 2017 in response to multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
"I came of age in the '60s and '70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then," said Weinstein.
WATCH | Advocate for sexual assault survivors explains why apologies matter:
Alexander also found that more than half of the statements extolled the accused person's accomplishments or framed him as an "ally" of the women's movement, feminism and the #MeToo movement generally.
For example, when TV icon Charlie Rose was accused by eight women of unwelcome sexual advances, including exposing himself and groping, he issued a statement that positioned himself as a champion of women in the workplace, and suggested there were different perceptions of what happened.
"In my 45 years in journalism, I have prided myself on being an advocate for the careers of the women with whom I have worked," Rose said. "[T]hough I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate. I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken."
Comedian Louis C.K. issued a 10-paragraph statement that confirmed allegations of sexual misconduct were true. Critics noted that he didn't actually apologize and managed to insert four times how much he was admired.
Road to redemption
One of Regina's feistiest feminists and most vocal advocates for sexual assault survivors gets a little frustrated when men who have been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment can't seem to take responsibility and apologize.
"We need people to be accountable. 'I'm sorry I did this. I didn't know better then; I do know better now. And, I will be better,'" Jill Arnott said, offering up her own script.
Arnott, the executive director of the University of Regina Women's Centre, yearns for apologies and introspection because she believes it's one of the first steps toward meaningful change.
The #MeToo movement has reverberated through Regina this summer with several high-profile men being accused of sexual misconduct — including a mayoral candidate, a musician, and leaders in the nonprofit community. An Instagram account has contributed to that by inviting anonymous accusers to name Regina men who they allege assaulted, harassed or abused them.
The focus on redemption for sexual harassers can irk some advocates who see it as more evidence that society cares less about the pain and trauma inflicted on victims than about the careers and reputations of men.
But Arnott says merely casting a handful of men aside as pariahs won't achieve deep changes within the patriarchal culture that perpetuates sexism.
"I don't want to live in a world where redemption isn't possible and where we don't have space for people to learn to be better once they know," Arnott said. "There has to be room for change or what are we doing this for? Why are we talking about it?"
"People can't undo the things they did, but what they can do is pursue something better. Acknowledge it. Apologize. Right? And then pursue something better."
Need more than public statements and shaming
Neither Lerner nor Alexander see knocking a powerful person off their pedestal or receiving a public apology as a benchmark for progress in the #MeToo movement.
"Public apologies are performances," said Lerner. "At the time of a public apology, the wrongdoer wants to save his own skin. That is a perfectly normal human impulse. But the person that the wrongdoer feels genuinely sorry for is himself."
And if those apologies are performances, then Alexander would rate them as bad ones.
She said her findings reveal that there is still a lack of awareness of what counts as sexual harassment, that it is still engrained in society and institutions and actions must be taken to stamp it out.
"'Takedowns' have become a distraction ... a sideshow," she said. "The real work has got to be rolling up our sleeves and looking at the assumptions of what it means to be a woman at work and what it means to be a man at work."