Trigger warning: sexual harassment/assault
I am — and have always been — a firm believer in the power of words. There is an indescribable power in the phrase “I love you.” There is a beautiful sense of hope in a singular, genuine compliment. But an apology is a funny thing. In many cases, they hold a sense of untold power. But in many others, they don’t. And the hardest part is picking out the genuine ones. As women, by default, we pick out the real from the fake on an everyday basis. Spoiler alert: when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, apologies are often the fake kind.
First, the boy who was supposed to be my friend forcefully grabbed me in my own home. I laughed it off to my other friends as if it was funny. That was the kind of thing you were supposed to just laugh off, wasn’t it? When he “apologized” by means of saying that he was drunk, I forgave him. Because, when someone apologizes, you have to accept it, right? You’re supposed to tell them that it’s okay, right?
But it’s not okay, it was never okay and it never will be okay. We often make emotions a binary: that we should either take on all the blame, or be strong enough not to feel anything at all. But the truth is, often, we don’t fall at either extreme of this emotional spectrum. I’m not okay because of the simple, yet devastating act on the part of this man. But I’m also not okay with how society instructs me to handle this situation.
‘Sorry’ as a Defense Mechanism
I was the one who said sorry that day I was leaving the beach with my friend and those two men blocked us from getting inside the door of my own car. It didn’t feel right when they repeatedly asked to come home with us, telling us we looked beautiful, as we stood desperately attempting to cover as much of ourselves with our towels, wishing that we had changed out of our bikinis. Something felt off when I had to grip my car keys as tight as I could, ready to defend myself.
My response to those men was, “I’m sorry, but we really need to go,” as if we were the ones doing something wrong. I can still feel my heart beating in my chest, fearing for our safety, fearing for our lives. I can still remember having to laugh it off with my friend in the car ride home as if it was some funny thing. I felt responsible for making light of the situation – she was younger than me, and I didn’t want her to be scared. Not yet. Was it wrong to keep her under the illusion that being a woman meant you couldn’t wear a bikini home from the beach without being stopped, even if just for a little while longer?
The Power of Non-Acceptance
I heard an apology, another “sorry,” in the middle of October, when my whole world unraveled. The same night when that boy convinced me that the only way to feel worth something was to give in to his sick desire despite my own intense desire to resist. I lost my voice to despair that night. He paralyzed me. In the morning, more voices told me I was worth even less for what I did, because of my inability to say no. I cried, but I thought they were right.
The next week, he apologized, saying that he didn’t realize I felt the way I did. He said that he would have stopped if I would have just said something. I cried every day for a month because he convinced me I was at fault for his actions. For something only he is responsible for. He convinced me that I was at fault for him taking my voice away.
My voice is one of the only things I truly completely own. Really, it’s one of the few things any of us have. And I’m using mine to say this: I don’t accept your apology.