sexual harassment

Where Public Apologies for Sexual Misconduct Should Start

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior.   Photo Credit: The New York Times

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior. 

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The still unfolding sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Hollywood, news media and politics also has showcased good, bad and pathetic high-profile public apologies.

Never an easy trick to pull off, even by the sincerest of people, public apologies require a lot more than “I’m sorry” because they usually involve a serious offense or allegation. To begin to repair reputational damage, a public apology must acknowledge wrongdoing, show empathy for victims and point to a path of rehabilitation.

Denying the allegations, even in the face of credible evidence, and denouncing accusers is the path to further reputational damage.

Jacob Sugarman, writing for Alternet, wonders whether there even is such a thing as a good public apology. If you are apologizing in public, he reasons, you have done something – or allegedly done something – pretty offensive. An apology may not be near enough to reach redemption. But it is a beginning,

Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who now faces two accusations of sexual misbehavior, began both of his statements with an apology. Then he said he didn’t remember the incident quite the same way as his first accuser or even remember the incident referenced by his second accuser. You would put Franken’s apology in the sort-of good category. He started with an apology, then offered a faint defense.

Louis C.K. began his apology by admitting he committed the offense of pleasuring himself in front of a captive audience of women. But his apology had the taint of a comic response. Yeah, I did it. Sorry. “I’ve been remorseful,” but get over it. The comic did say he was stepping back to reflect.

Franken directed his apology at his accuser, touted his own political record as a champion of women’s issues and called for a Senate ethics investigation, even though the USO incident for which he apologized occurred before he was in the Senate.

On the other end of Sugarman’s spectrum of apologetica are Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore who both deny accusations against them and stubbornly refuse to apologize for their actions. Weinstein has suggested his couch casting was the norm in Hollywood. Moore refuses to admit he even knew his teenage accusers.

To make matters worse, Weinstein hired Israeli spies to discredit some of his accusers. Moore dispatched his attorney to do the equivalent by demanding verification of Moore’s signature in a high school yearbook of one of his accusers he claims he never met.

Weinstein admitted himself to a sex addiction clinic. Moore refuses to withdraw from a race to win a seat in the US Senate, blaming the whole episode on political dirty tricks.

Somewhere in between was the semi-apology of actor Kevin Spacey. He offered commiseration with his teenage victim, explaining it was the result of “inappropriate drunken behavior.” Then he announced he is a gay man and has been traumatized for years by being in the closet.

The New York Times has published a story that lists the prominent men who have faced sexual misconduct accusations. The list needs almost daily updates. Charlie Rose, late of CBS News, is the latest man to offer an apology after eight women accused him of sexual harassment, groping and lewd behavior. “I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.”

It fell to Rose’s CBS News co-anchor Norah O’Donnell to put the whole issue of sexual misconduct into perspective: “This is a moment that demands a frank and honest assessment about where we stand and more generally the safety of women. Let me be very clear: There is no excuse for this alleged behavior. It is systematic and pervasive.”

The safety of women (and men, too) is at risk. Being seduced on a couch by a Hollywood producer or a business bigwig isn’t all that much different than being molested in an alley. Many women are emerging from the shadows of their memories to disclose what happened to them and the perpetrators who did it or tried to do it. The sheer volume of accusations and the common claim of unwanted kissing and groping and lewd behavior reinforces O’Donnell’s conclusion that “It is systemic and pervasive.”

One accused man accused who admits he’s a cad won’t end the pattern of sexual misconduct, but it’s a start. It also would be a perfect place to begin a real apology.

Reflections and Lessons to Learn About Sexual Misconduct

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is an explosive issue and recent allegations, denials, admissions and equivocations serve as a manual on what to do and not to do. They also are a mirror on how much or how little progress we have made on an issue that evokes raw emotions.

Rumors and charges of sexual misconduct by men in power positions aren’t new. The casting couch has been a longstanding image in Hollywood. But the flood gates of anger and frustration blew open with waves of revelations concerning big-time Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Despite Weinstein’s denials and his self-admission to a sex addiction clinic, he was booted out of his own company and expelled by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s company is considering a name change. His wife is seeking a divorce.

Allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct emboldened other women and men to reveal their long-suppressed horror stories about men who abused their power positions. The list, which is still growing, includes House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, NBC political analyst Mark Halperin, celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, comedian Louis C.K. and even former President George H. W. Bush.

The response to Weinstein’s abuses also provoked sharper, swifter responses to subsequent allegations – Netflix divorced itself from Spacey, Oreskes and Halperin were fired and Richardson was banned from working for Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines. However, critics questioned why Weinstein friends and associates didn’t blow the whistle sooner on his behavior that stretches back years. NPR’s CEO also took heat for not acting sooner when earlier allegations were made.

Many of the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing or said they couldn’t remember. Richardson said everything he did was consensual. Former President Bush cited his physical condition to explain his ass-touching during photo opps. Halperin and Oreskes apologized for their conduct and its impact on news team colleagues. Louis C.K. admitted his behavior was inappropriate and said he was withdrawing to reflect.

Amid the fallout from Weinstein, organizations with ties to alleged abusers quickly disassociated themselves and many issued statements about a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. There have been calls to elevate more women into positions of power.

Then came The Washington Post bombshell last week about Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his thirties and serving as an assistant district attorney. Moore denies the allegations and claims they are a political hit job just weeks before a special election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP officials urged Moore to step aside “if the allegations are true.” McConnell went further this week, saying he believed the allegations and reiterated Moore should exit the race and not imperil Republican chances to hold onto the seat and their precarious Senate majority.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went in a different direction. He blew past Moore’s denials and said Moore’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl appeared “consensual,” even though Alabama law puts the age of consent at 16. Hannity’s defense of Moore prompted Keurig and other companies to pull advertising from Hannity’s show, which in turn led Hannity defenders “to throw their Keurigs out the window.”

Alabama voters quoted in news stories expressed the range of reactions. Some were upset to hear the allegations; others saw the allegations as fake news and dirty politics. One convicted and conflicted Moore supporter said he would rather vote for a pedophile than a Democrat.

There are a lot of things to learn from this still unfolding series of stories:

  • Women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment should be respected for the courage it takes to tell – or in some cases retell – their stories. The sudden release of a spate of stories is a direct reflection of the hopelessness and fear many victims felt at the hands of men with power who they presumed, not incorrectly, would be protected. Questioning the timing of their revelations should be secondary to listening carefully to the content of their revelations.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that men in powerful positions (and a few women, too) have abused their positions to take advantage of people. Whether it involves pressuring women to have sex, forcing women to watch a man pleasuring himself or seducing minors shouldn’t matter. The gradations of abuse aren’t the issue and can’t be part of an explanation or excuse. Sexual abuse is, without any qualification, sexual abuse.
  • Owning the abuse, as Louis C. K. did, is a good start, but not full redemption. The worst toll of sexual abuse befalls the victim, not the abuser. Abusers may have to pay a price and even in some cases go to jail, but victims have to live with the stain of abuse for a long time, often with life-changing consequences. Give your emotional empathy to the victims.
  • While statements of zero tolerance are important and clearly timely, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your work environment hasn’t been turned toxic by sexual harassment or abuse. If you discover instances of it, take action. Don’t let it fester and, most important, don’t force victims to cower in the shadow of your inattention or inaction.
  • There may be a statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults, but there is no final deadline for allegations. If you think sexual abuse can be pushed under the rug or will just go away, think again. When allegations are made, pay attention. It may be time for rug-cleaning.
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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.