By Joan Tabachnick and Cordelia Anderson
Since #MeToo went viral, millions of women and men have stepped forward to say, “This happened to me.” This shift has been seismic and reflects how far society has come. In the past few decades, in small and large ways, survivors of sexual abuse have shattered the silence that for so long surrounded sexual abuse.
Society needs to do more than simply say, “I believe you.” We have known for decades that we can’t just arrest and prosecute our way to safer communities. We need to do more. We need a movement that will encourage anyone who has caused the harm to take responsibility for what they have done. It is important to step directly into the controversy, to not shy away from the complexity of this issue.
Ana Maria Archila Gualy, the survivor who famously confronted then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) in an elevator doorway shortly after the hearing for Supreme Court associate justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, offered one clear pathway for a deeper response. She said: “The way that justice works is that you recognize harm, you take responsibility for it and then you begin to repair it.” She went on to say that Sen. Flake was wrong to vote for a man who “is unwilling to take responsibility for his own actions, unwilling to hold the harm he has done to one woman, actually three, and repair it.”
As of this writing, there are few examples of anyone publicly recognizing the harm their behavior caused and taking responsibility for that harm. Many continue to deny what they have done, even when the evidence pointing to them is overwhelming. In fact, most public apologies fall short; the people who have caused the harm don’t recognize the harm they have done, don’t listen to the person they harmed, and haven’t taken full responsibility for it. Consider actor Kevin Spacey saying “If I did behave as he described…” and describing the behaviors as mutual. Or writerradio host Garrison Keillor saying that his suggestive fantasies were simply “romantic writing,” deflecting their impact. Chef Mario Batali actually included a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls in his apology!
Reflecting on the public figures who have done everything possible to avoid taking responsibility, Ashley Judd said: “We still wait for an accused who can and will embody what the #MeToo movement and our society needs and wants: someone who can navigate the duality of having aggressed and address their abuse of power with culpability and integrity.”
We have seen that, at least in less visible cases, the people who took responsibility have been harassed and shamed for their efforts. Examples abound of people facing the harm that they have caused and the impact of what they have done. The authors have worked with a man in his sixties, Kevin, who raped a young woman when he was in college. After listening to #MeToo allegations growing ever more prevalent in the media, he felt compelled to speak out.
He believed there were many men like him who, if given the opportunity to take reparative accountability for past actions, would be willing to acknowledge the harm they’d caused. He published an op-ed in Huffington Post challenging other men to “take responsibility for ourselves as sexual victimizers of women so that an honest dialogue can emerge about how to change the conditions and conditioning that led us to do these things.” While some responses were encouraging and supportive, his writing caused a rift within his family; he was cut off from some friends and lost work in a storm of social media criticism.
What would it take for society to be able to create the space for people to step forward and take responsibility for their mistakes, to be held accountable for the harm they caused, and to be allowed to “begin to repair it”?
The authors, along with Alissa Ackerman, offered a workshop at the 2018 conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) called “Accountability and Responsibility in the Era of #MeToo.” We shared our work, exploring what accountability could look like in the #MeToo era. ATSA works with adults and adolescents who have been accused and convicted of some form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual assault. We chose to use a restorative justice (RJ) frame with these professionals to address this issue.
According to the criminologist Howard Zehr, considered the grandfather of restorative justice, RJ “is basically common sense…. When a wrong has been done, it needs to be named and acknowledged. Those who have been harmed need to be able to grieve their losses, to be able to tell their stories, to have their questions answered; that is, to have the harms and needs caused by the offense addressed. They—and we—need to have those who have done wrong accept their responsibility and take steps to repair the harm to the extent it is possible.”
Using the RJ circle process, we asked workshop attendees to look at responsibility and authentic accountability at three levels:
1. At the personal level: When you are determining whether or not you believe someone you care about has taken full responsibility for a harm they have done, what do you look for in the apology? The answers included:
- Genuine remorse
- Body language
- Word choice
- Taking responsibility and not making excuses
- Choosing to act differently (Walk the talk)
- Being able to observe changing behavior over time and whether it is consistent with the apology
- Willingness to come back to the conversation over and over again if necessary
- Importance of being consistent when discussing the issues
Participants also noted that there are different levels of accountability depending upon the cognitive understanding of the adult, adolescent or child who committed the harm. On the personal level, some acknowledged that the feelings behind this question would depend upon whether it was their own child who was harmed or someone they know, or they know the person who caused the harm. Each of these conditions might also affect our own responsibility to hold someone accountable for their actions.
2. At the clinical level: When you are determining whether or not you believe a client (or someone you are advocating for) has taken full responsibility for a harm they have done, what do you look for? All of the above were mentioned, plus:
- A clear understanding of the feelings of others
- Recognize that the conversations, the insights and the changes are genuine
- If there is an apology, it is from the heart and authentic, not scripted based upon what is expected of the person in treatment
- Being able to observe changes in all aspects of their lives
- Confirmation from others that both their words and their actions are changing for the better.
3. At the society level: When you are determining whether or not you believe a public figure has taken full responsibility for a harm they have done, what do you look for? The themes that emerged in the circle for the public person’s apology included ones already identified and the items below:
- Ability to articulate harm from the perspective of those who were harmed
- Ensure that the focus of the apology is on others and not an excuse trying to explain their own behaviors
- Humility about their lives and being able to convey a sense of integrity
- Timing (not too soon or too late)
- Word choice was raised to a new level for a public figure as well as their actions (e.g., words that could minimize the impact of simply saying “my victims” rather than the person/friend/ child I harmed)
- Ability to articulate a range of other behaviors and taking responsibility for those
- Not victim blaming
The group identified that a key difference in the public domain is that one can’t slowly build relationships based upon trust—an essential element of this work. The groups also noted that at least to date very few public figures have tried to take full responsibility for their actions, and for those who tried, none has been received well by the public.
We have seen people take full responsibility in a less public arena where it was well received. After conversations with others, Kevin met with Alissa Ackerman to join in a process she has called “Vicarious Restorative Justice” highlighted in a special VICE report on HBO (www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTj-QCOm4p8).
Together, they decided to use her model of bringing individuals who are survivors of sexual violence together with men who committed sexual violence to share the impact of the trauma. Four survivors came together with Kevin to speak about the impact that sexual abuse had on their lives. Through this process, each spoke about how they have been able to come to terms with this history in a deeper way; for Kevin, he was better able to come to terms with his past actions and the harm he caused. In part through this process, Kevin has committed to using his professional expertise to work with and help a survivor-based startup enterprise resource near his home.
Another man we have worked with, Tom Stranger, was contacted after nine years by Thordis Elva, the high school student he raped while he was a high school exchange student in Iceland. Together they entered into a long and intense process to address her needs—at her pace—doing what she needed for him to take responsibility for his past sexual aggression. Their process led them to coauthor a book, South of Forgiveness, and to do a popular TED talk about what happened and how they came to work together. Tom explained that “owning one’s past choices should be viewed as neither brave nor heroic in any way, but instead a necessary obligation and acknowledgment of individual culpability. I’m also deeply invested in learning any ways to better the approach I use to share my part in our history.”
Thordis eloquently shared the possible impact of these conversations and reminds us, “I know in my heart that hearing a story like the one I share with Tom would have made a world of a difference to me when I was younger. As a survivor, it would have helped me realize that the shame wasn’t mine to carry, and that there is hope of finding happiness in life even after a shattering experience like rape.” Tom lives continues to speak publicly. He faces both support for his courageous efforts and anger and skepticism for continuing to be public on his own.
Both of these cases used the principles of restorative justice that allowed the survivor—the person harmed—to speak about the lifelong impact of what happened to them. In both cases, these conversations captured a relational approach with the survivors, the support of people and (in some cases) their families, and took away much of the isolation those involved were experiencing.
It is true that in our righteous anger society tends to focus on cases where the celebrity is clearly wrong and is fully punished for what they have done. We can all name many of these individuals—including Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, and, of course, the late Jeffrey Epstein. We are also starting to see celebrities who have been accused of sexual assault begin to reenter their professions, provoking questions such as: How much is enough time? What is enough accountability? And what is enough remorse to signal that it is permissible for you to reenter society?
Understandably, the initial response to these cases is retribution, not redemption. When we learn of the horror, the full extent of what happened, we often have more of an appetite for vengeance. It may, in part, be a reaction to the helplessness we feel in hearing such horrific stories. A question: What if we could also channel our reaction into creating a space for someone to step forward to acknowledge, to take responsibility for what they have done? For years, victims hesitated to speak out publicly for fear of being judged, shamed, or worse. Why would we expect a different reaction from a person who is trying to take responsibility for perpetrating the harm? How society responds initially can set the stage for a healing process. Society has begun to create a space for survivors to step forward through the growing #MeToo movement. Now we have another opportunity: can society create space for individuals to come forward to be held accountable for what they have done and to take full responsibility for their actions? Opening the space for people to say, “I did this and take responsibility for my actions” may not be the answer to sexual violence, but it offers a piece of healing for at least some survivors in some situations. If this does offer a path to healing and community safety, we would be negligent to ignore what this opportunity has to offer all of us.
Joan Tabachnick, DSM Consulting, focuses on preventing the perpetration of sexually harmful behaviors, particularly on children, adolescents and young adults. Over 25 years, she has developed prevention materials and programs for national, state, and local organizations. www.joantabachnick.com.
Cordelia Anderson operated a national prevention training and consulting enterprise based in Minnesota for four decades promoting healthy development and preventing harmful behaviors. She has conducted more than 2700 trainings across the country and abroad on topics including preventing child sexual abuse/exploitation, the impact of pornography, and restorative practices.