Ethical Dilemmas is a regular column where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. Hayley Glaholt is a pro at carefully examining two sides of a story and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality. If you have a difficult problem you’re currently dealing with and want some free advice, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In light of #MeToo, I find men are publicly apologizing for what they’ve done or did not do in the past. I find some men are privately apologizing as well. Recently, the guy who sexually assaulted me (read: date rape) messaged me to apologize. I don’t know what to do. I’m stunned, angry and sad. I’m happy this all came up and women/men are speaking up and joining forces but man, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Triggers everywhere.
[female, 33, Toronto]
This question took me a long time to answer. It is such a complicated situation—sexual violence is a sinister mix of the personal (violence done to you as an individual) and political (violence as a patriarchal, misogynistic act)—that I wasn’t sure where to start. I don’t want to tell you how to feel and I don’t want to tell you what I think is “right” or “wrong”. In fact, there IS no objectively “right” or “wrong” course of action here.
I do not want the personal—your experience, your trauma, your emotions, your memories—to be overshadowed by what might be the politically correct or acceptable answer. And in that regard, I think it’s important to be very clear about one thing: this rapist took your agency away from you, and the only “right” course of action is the one that restores and/or confirms your sense of agency and autonomy. And so, in the end, the answer to your question is glaringly simple: you should do exactly what you think is right.
You owe nothing to this man. We can’t know what his motivations were for apologizing to you, and we can’t know what he hoped to achieve by apologizing. Did he do it to make himself feel better? Did he do it to atone in some way for his actions? The tricky thing about apologies is that sometimes they make the recipient feel as if they have to act in certain ways—once the apologizer has unloaded their words, they may feel they can walk away with lighter shoulders. The recipient, however, is then burdened with additional emotional baggage and may feel forced to accept the apology and “move on”.
The #MeToo movement is an awakening and it has been a long time coming. For those who have been through sexual assault, harassment, or abuse, reading about a new revelation of this nature seemingly on a weekly basis can be a lot to take. So, give yourself permission to opt-out. You can still stand in solidarity with the women and men who have been violated without reading every word of their story. To be an effective advocate, sometimes that’s what you MUST do. Compassion fatigue, coupled with PTSD, can destroy you.
I’ve seen many people describe #MeToo as a moment of reckoning. There are two aspects to the definition of reckoning: 1) the settlement of accounts, and 2) an accounting, as for things received or done. I’m wondering if it may be helpful to frame the guy’s message to you as just that: not a settlement or resolution of what he did to you, but as part of an ongoing process of accounting for the history you both share.
This many years later, he is finally admitting that he raped you and that it was wrong to do so. He is apologizing for the pain he caused you. Though you in no way need his validation or apology to know what he did was wrong, perhaps there is some sense of peace that can come from your agreement on that. Yes, he did that. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, it was excruciating. And there’s nothing wrong with leaving it at that. You are a powerful person and you know what is best for you, so take your time and only do what brings you peace.