Kiersten Essenpreis for BuzzFeed News
Do you remember us?
Do you think of those comments you made about our bodies, or what you wanted to do to us; that time you lunged at us drunkenly; that time — all those times — you didn’t stop when we said no? As the dominoes fall for man after man after man who’s behaved in the same ways you have, do you regret your behavior? Or are you only scared that we’ll name you for it?
I’ve worked with thousands of victims in a variety of capacities the last seven years, and I know the gravity of your impact. You’ve never made just one comment; you never abused just one time or just one of us. I’ve seen the shame you make us feel, the way you make us question our worth, the way you make us want to shed our skin.
But things have shifted, if temporarily: When we speak now, we’re often being heard, instead of silenced.
Yes, you remember us. Not because we are meaningful or human or of any consequence to you. We are not special to you, we are the opposite: This is how, on levels explicit or subtle, you relate to everyone in your world. Everyone exists beneath you, never alongside you. There is rarely only one of us, and more often, there are many, sometimes more than 50, dating back decades.
We excuse you, too: for our own sake, our own safety, our own sense of the world. It is so much easier to say you did not know better — you were just drunk, it was just that one time. We minimize our own experiences of real harm, hoping just maybe, we’re the only ones you’ve hurt. We call it — your violence, your degradation, your abuse — “not that bad.” That way, we can keep believing you are a safe man, a safe friend, a safe partner, a safe boss.
We might even still defend you as, or believe you are, a good man — but you’ve shattered the illusion of safety. Meanwhile, we are forced to consider quitting as our careers peak, or forced to endure in jobs that are our livelihood, when your brand or your voice is valued over ours. We leave school. Some of us are forced out of school simply for doing what everyone begs us to — reporting you. You break us down so that our work suffers and we lose merit. Some of us die.
When you apologize after being publicly revealed as a perpetrator, you are not sorry in a way that can ever matter. For you, this will likely never be about anything more than the pain of being categorized alongside the predators and perpetrators and abusers and assailants and those “others” who hurt people. You want us to know that you’re sorry, even though “some” of the allegations are “mischaracterized.”
You are sorry “to those you offended.” But you’re never really sorry.
With your apologies, you often expect to wash it all away; you expect forgiveness, you expect for things to one day return to the way they were. You hope we will forget. You hope we will let you sneak off — to a ranch, to another campus, to another family, anywhere out of public view — temporarily, and then return not only to working, or being in the world, but to being beloved.
But we don’t want your apology. We wanted your integrity. We wanted safety. Now, we want you to go away.
Some of us, especially if we’re young, do wish you didn’t have to disappear, and some of us value apologies. Sometimes, the idea of getting you in trouble is terrifying, as it often ironically leaves us labeled the troublemaker. Some of us simply want an acknowledgment of your behavior, or of the pain you’ve caused. You impact each of us differently, and it is not only for the impact you’ve had on us, but because you’ve abused your power at all, that you must now go away. You abused your power, and by holding you responsible, we are reclaiming ours.
You can neither expect nor hope for a restoration of your relationship with us, or your role in our lives. If you’re seeking restoration, you’re asking the wrong question, because this is not about you, or even what kind or level of harm you’ve caused — it is about the behavior itself. It is part of a spectrum of what we have been taught to expect and accept in the world.
Understand that you’re going away for an indefinite amount of time, and there is no guarantee anyone will welcome, or even merely accept, your return. All you can do is begin to understand your behavior. You can have no expectation of atonement or reparation. To be truly sorry is an internal experience: It involves you learning about and questioning what led you to behave in these ways, acknowledging them, and asking yourself how, and if, you would ever behave differently.
Remember, you’re from the same world we are. You knew the same social rules we did, and you chose to violate them. Your behavior was your choice. By harming one of us, or more than one of us, you strip the whole community of safety.
You need to understand that you cannot defend what you’ve done — it is indefensible. If you want to leave for treatment, do it because you genuinely want to change your behavior, not because you want to quietly slip away until things quiet down. If you wanted to change — if this was about integrity and not fear of public-shaming — you probably would have done it long before being publicly accused.
For all of us, speaking what happened means we have to own that it happened to us, and the shame that often comes with that is unbearable. You are and were our friends, our idols, our fathers, our boyfriends and partners, our uncles, our doctors, our professors. Your actions have tainted our favorite movies, music, art — our entire world. We ask ourselves, “How do you reconcile your love for somebody with the revelation that they have behaved badly?” Some of us “don't know what life is like to not think about it.” For each of us, you have darkened each day with the reality that we cannot do anything to prevent this from happening to us. There is no amount of sorry that can undo the harm you’ve caused.
Accountability — owning that you are responsible for harm — is both all you can promise and the most basic thing you can offer. When you’re held accountable, we are finally believed. When you’re held accountable, we become not a single survivor sharing an experience, but a chorus of voices striving for justice. Do not ask us — the public, those you have harmed — to ever hold you up the way we once did or restore you to power again. We will not protect you. We will not shoulder your burden anymore.
Ali Safran is the founding director of Surviving in Numbers, a nonprofit changing the culture of sexual and domestic violence through prevention education and survivor empowerment.