Sorry Not Sorry: Apologism and Rape Culture

A cartoon of a man saying "I'm sorry you felt that way"

If there is one thing we can count on Hollywood men to do, it is recite lines. And these lines, responses to the recent explosion of sexual assault and misconduct accusations against high-profile men in the entertainment industry, are less believable than even the industry’s most sensational blockbusters.

I hesitate to classify these statements as apologies because their aim is antithetical to what an apology should be. Sure, they might contain the word “sorry,” but they sidestep the issue, assign blame elsewhere, and deflect responsibility. A sincere apology holds the apologizer accountable; these calculated, proofread, and completely intentional statements do anything but.

Let’s take a look at some lines from Kevin Spacey’s recent statement, released on Twitter in response to actor’s Anthony Rapp’s accusations:

“I am beyond horrified to hear this story. I honestly do not remember the encounter, it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.”

Where to start? First, Spacey hijacks the narrative to insert his own feelings of “shock.” Then he immediately dismisses Rapp’s account as merely a “story.” He emphasizes the time elapsed since the assault took place, which only underscores how survivors of sexual assault carry the psychological and emotional burden of the crime long after its occurrence. He sets up his apology as a conditional – ”if I did” – and reduces sexual assault to “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Spacey knows what he’s doing. He covers all his bases so that his statement avoids implicating himself as the source of lasting trauma that Rapp struggles with.

In a gross encore, he brings up his sexuality as a means of diversion, saying he “choose[s] now to live as a gay man.” Denying allegations of sexual assault and coming out in the same breath is telling; somehow, he believes his sexuality will magically absolve him of guilt.

Spacey’s statement isn’t even far and away the worst of the most recent crop. Other “apologies” have ranged from flaccid and insincere (hi, Louis C.K.!) to litanies of pathetic non-excuses and promises of reform (Weinstein, it’s too late) to launching smear campaigns against survivors (Bill Cosby is particularly repugnant on this count).

Most of these statements involve some variation of “I’m sorry you felt that way.”  This is two-pronged: it neatly sidesteps implicating the apologist, and it implies that the assault or harassment was only an issue because the victim took offense.

The behavior of these powerful men does not exist in a vacuum. It is no secret Americans take everything from beauty tricks to sex tips from stars of the screen. Our entertainment industry is reflective of American idealism and aspiration; we hold up stars as paragons of moral virtue and deify producers and directors. It’s why we are shocked by their falls from grace, and it’s what makes us demand such high burdens of proof from their victims.

The truth is, Quentin Tarantino is no more likely to be an active bystander because he made a couple of good movies. And just because Bill Cosby captured America’s hearts on screen does not mean he’s any better of a man.

For men in Hollywood, a carefully edited statement is just another line to read out. But for the innumerable people who face sexual assault and harassment, it is another reminder that their stories will always be secondary, will always be doubted, will always be seen as subjective.

Survivors of sexual assault or harassment are conditioned to question themselves after the fact. I’ve asked myself: when a man has kissed me after I said no, was I at fault? When my ass has been grabbed in a dark room or my chest squeezed by a stranger – should I write it off, in Spacey’s words, as “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior?”

Hollywood’s non-apology script is disgusting because it distracts from the specific survivor and the specific offense in order to further another powerful man’s redemption arc. And it is disgusting beyond that; it does a disservice to every person who has doubted themselves after sexual assault or harassment.

Rape culture sustains itself by making victims doubt themselves with subtle tricks of language. These sad excuses for “apologies” regurgitated by powerful men have nothing to do with remorse, and everything to do with perpetuating the rape culture that keeps them in power.

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