I am aware that using men and women in this piece is reductive. I am aware that women abuse men, and that women and men abuse each other, and that enbys and trans folk are disproportionately victims of assault. Those conversations are incredibly important, and also I am 100% unqualified to have them. I believe it is fair to say that cis gendered white men perpetrate the largest amount of systemic oppression in the United States, and I am moving forward from that point of view. In order to avoid belaboring my point, I am using the man/woman phrasing that is typically common in these discussion, while noting that when I say “women” or “girls” I mean “not-cis-white-men.”
The Classic Apology: If there is anyone I harmed with my behavior, then I am sorry. I believe what people say and respect their lived experience! I don’t mean to be a jerk! If you tell me I’m being a dick, I’ll stop, I promise!
I am writing this letter unsure if I will even send it. As I write it, I fear for my career. You are a successful person in your chosen industry, while I am barely even beginning to break in. Even if I had your relative experience, it would be a huge risk professionally and personally. If you decide I am just some chick being a bitch, then you have the ability to keep me from ever being a success. You may also be able to threaten my friends just because they are associated with me, simply by expressing offense to what I say. Writing this is a risk. If it wasn’t a risk, it would be a lot shorter; all I would have to say is “go fuck yourself.”
Beyond the professional power that you can potentially wield, you are a cis-het presenting white man. Even if I were just a cis-het white woman, we would be at a power imbalance; I am a queer autistic enby who does not attempt to pass. With the news full of women coming forward about years of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men, it should be obvious to anyone that it is unsafe for women to speak up about men who have even relative power over them. When the event occurred, I will admit I shook my head and walked away. In a world where rape and assault victims are publicly pilloried daily for speaking out, I literally do not have time for this shit. But hey, you wanted to apologize, so let’s talk.
I saw your apology, although you did not address it to me directly. You spoke about wanting people to know that you weren’t a bad guy, that when people told you that you were being a dick, you stopped! Right away! You didn’t mean it. Because you’re one of the good ones. I am hoping that’s true, because I would very much like you to take this as precisely that: I am telling you that you are being a dick so that you can stop. I hope that next time you find yourself in this sort of situation, you can do better.
Sir, your apology was offensive and deeply painful, because it digs into an old wound that never gets to heal because it is constantly being torn open. You said: “If I harmed anyone with my behavior, then I am sorry.” It is the qualifier, the “if,” that makes this horrendous and frustrating. “If” says “I clearly didn’t do anything, I don’t know why you’re being so sensitive, but I’ll say I’m sorry since you’re all pissy.” In a professional context, it says “This is your fault, and I’m saying sorry so that I don’t get in trouble.”
During the event for which you are apologizing, you absolutely did the thing you were later told you were doing. You said the thing, you did the thing, and you were, intentionally or not, “that guy.” When people said you said, did, or were the thing, you became offended. You escalated the conversation by saying “well, actually,” which is as helpful as “not all men” and “you’re being too sensitive.” You provided rationalizations for the experiences of women. You said “these things happen to me too. It’s just life. Why are you making a big deal out of this?” You may say that you believe the lived experiences of women, but your behavior in this situation does not line up with your self-perception.
What’s funny-not-funny-at-all is that these things were addressed in the conversation that you were responding to. I am aware that these things happen to men, too. I am aware that there are rational reasons that these things happen. I am aware that it’s “not always about gender.” But sexism (and racism and homophobia and and and and and) are not about a single, isolated incident. They are about a systematic oppression of a particular group due to a characteristic that is beyond their control. You were too busy talking over the conversation to hear that part.
When you argued that a woman’s perception of events which occurred to her is incorrect, does that sound as though you were acting from a point of view of believing the lived experience of women?
This all may be new to you; after all, women don’t generally have these conversations where men can hear. Allowing you to see that hurt, that anger, that pain, that frustration, when there is a legitimate fear that you will act — well, exactly like you did? Who would subject themselves to that, over and over? I also want to make sure you understand something: I guarantee this is not the first time you have done something like this. It may, however, be the first time someone has spoken up about it.
When the event occurred, you were not speaking to me. I watched it unfold and was aware of the conversation, but actively chose not to participate because frankly, some days I’d rather punch myself in the face until I see God instead of trying to explain sexism to men again. It would never have occurred to me that your apology was intended for me if you hadn’t messaged my male friend to explain it, both because it was so poorly thought out and because it wasn’t addressed to me in the first place. You said you didn’t want to bother me, that you understood I was upset. I appreciate that, because I did not want to talk to you. I still don’t. That apology wasn’t meant for me, it was meant to make you feel better because you didn’t understand why women were upset with you; I saw it and dismissed it. But I feel the need to point out that choosing to speak to a man about the situation rather than speaking to me directly is also endemic of this entire problem. It reinforces the notion that men are somehow responsible for their women – and that we are ‘their’ women. It is the same attitude that means a girl gets pressured in a bar, but that the offender backs off when a guy shows up and puts his arm around her.
It’s good that you apologized. It’s good that you tried to make amends. I don’t think you owe me an apology, and I’m not sure that an apology for the original event is even helpful. I am tired of hearing apologies. I don’t want apologies – good ones or bad ones – because they only happen after you screw up again. I want to see changes in your behavior that show me you’re listening. I want to see you do better, and then I want to see you turn around and tell the other guys in your circle that their behavior isn’t acceptable, that you understand where they’re coming from, and also they are propping up an unfair system in big ways, small ways, unconscious ways, conscious ways, and that they should take some responsibility too. It’s called “the patriarchy” for a fucking reason.
You said that you’re really a nice guy, that you’re one of the good ones. Your apology is predicated on the notion that I misunderstood. You’re a good guy! You wouldn’t have done something like this on purpose. Your female friends spoke up to defend you, saying really, you don’t have a mean bone in your body. You just don’t know better. Sometimes when women say that about you it’s code for “I know, I’m sorry.” Sometimes it’s not. It’s always a way of shielding you from the consequences of your actions.
When your friends say that you are really a nice guy, I believe them (because I trust the lived experience of women). I also know that being nice does not preclude behaving in sexist and misogynistic ways. When I’m less blindingly enraged, I can even acknowledge that it’s hard to see the myriad ways in which we as a society are sexist and racist and homophobic (and and and and and), especially when we are in the role of the oppressor. But I also know that you were shockingly hurtful during the event and after it in a way that I am furious that I’m used to. And the part where I get to watch everyone flock to your side to tell you they were so sorry that people were being so mean to you, how dare they make you apologize, you didn’t really do anything, those people were just so sensitive; to comfort you for the hurtful actions you have taken, that just compounds the frustration and anger. I have enough to deal with.
Being one of “the good ones” isn’t an endpoint; it’s an excuse to say you’re not like the worst ones, so you’re okay. It’s a rationalization (you’re good at that – you have to be) used to gloss over mistakes, gloss over a lack of self-reflection, gloss over women. I get it. It’s hard to think that you might have had a head start in the race. It’s hard to think that you might be treated differently – better – because of something you have no control over. If you’re not a total bag of walking smelly sweaty gonad containers then it’s hard to think that you’ve had a better chance at success just because you were born as a cis-man. I get it, I really do. But you have a choice right now: you can continue to participate in systems of oppression, or you can accept that you live in this system and make changes. Changes don’t come with a trophy. No one will throw you a party for realizing that women are a categorically oppressed group, and multiply marginalized women even more so. “The good ones” continuously examine their roles in systems of oppression and do the work – and it’s a lot of goddamn work – necessary to stand up to them, to demand better treatment for those marginalized people. I’m just old enough to suggest you follow the words of Bob Dylan:
Come writers and critics
who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
for the wheel’s still in spin
Your old road is rapidly agin’
And get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times, they are a-changin’.
I won’t send this to you. I can’t. I can’t make this specific because frankly, this happens so fucking often that I wouldn’t know which incident to pick, who to send it to, how to possibly choose which microaggression is the most painful. If you think this is about you, take a look at that. If you think this is only about you, that’s part of the problem. If you think this is to you, you’re wrong. There’s too many of you, and I don’t have that much goddamn time. I hope that you can do what you said, see that you were being a dick, and reconsider how you behaved. I hope that you can make different choices the next time you have the opportunity to hear women talk about their lived experiences. It might not be the same people you dealt with this time. These people have probably decided that it’s not worth the risk to have these conversations in front of you.
I wish you well in all of your endeavors.