Dear Therapist: Is It Possible to Apologize for a Sexual Assault?

Multiple men have asked that question to our advice columnist. Here is her response.

An illustration of a man standing on a sidewalk
Bianca Bagnarelli
Editor’s Note: This special installment of Dear Therapist diverges from the normal format, in that the question addressed does not come from an individual reader. Rather, it’s one that various men have asked our columnist Lori Gottlieb, in her inbox and in her own therapy practice: Is it possible to apologize for a sexual assault? And if so, how?

Dear Men Who Have Asked,

There are so many reasons that men might be reluctant to come forward and ask this question, much less to reflect on what they’ve done, so I admire the courage it takes to do so. I worry, too, that some people will take issue with this question and attack those who ask it, and I would hate for that to happen, because your intentions are good, and attacking people who come forward shuts down the very conversations that #MeToo has worked so hard to start.

While there’s no one way to handle this—your options range from a genuine, heartfelt apology to the woman you assaulted to attempts at making things right for women more broadly—I can help you think through what might be the best way to take responsibility for a sexual assault committed in the past.

Some of you have said that you’d like to tell the woman you assaulted that you’re remorseful and that you’ve changed as a person. So first, let’s separate what you’re seeking for yourself from what this woman might herself be seeking. You’re essentially asking two questions—one about you, and one about her. The question related to you is about forgiveness: You’re seeking something from her so that you feel less pain (shame, horror, anxiety about whether she’ll come forward). The question related to her is what you can do so that she feels less pain.

I’d suggest that you get clear about your motivations so that if you do approach her, it’s to help her and not yourself. Your needs are important, too, but as I’ll get to in a moment, those needs are for you to work through without bringing her into it. Right now, the focus should be solely on her.

First, you’ll want to consider what it might be like for her to hear from you. She might find it upsetting to be contacted by the person who assaulted her, and you’ll need to honor and respect whatever her reaction is—refusing to speak with you, not responding to a letter you send, expressing anger, etc. On the other hand, she might welcome an apology because it validates her experience and makes her feel less dehumanized, which is a common reaction to being sexually assaulted—she’s finally being acknowledged as a human being with feelings: I’m not crazy. My memories are real. I’m not the only one who witnessed my assault. I felt utterly invisible then but I’m not invisible now. He couldn’t see my pain then, but he sees it now.

When planning what you’ll say, think about how to phrase your apology so that she knows you aren’t asking anything from her—forgiveness, reassurance, absolution, a clean slate. After all, if this is being done for your benefit, it might feel like just another violation.

With that in mind, it will be important to take full ownership for what you’ve done by steering clear of apologies that don’t feel like apologies. One example is saying you’re sorry for the assault, and then minimizing it by offering what sound like excuses rather than explanations. I did this horrible thing to you, but the culture at the time made it seem normal and I was a dumb teenager who didn’t know any better. The genuine apology is simply “I did this horrible thing to you, and I’m so, so sorry.” Likewise, don’t dilute your apology by explaining how proud you are of who you’ve become—that may be little solace if while you were experiencing great growth, she had been sitting with what you did to her all this time. Another non-apology apology might sound like this: I’m sorry for assaulting you. I too know how it feels to be powerless, given my experience during such and such, and while what I did was worse, I can empathize with you. In fact, you don’t know how another person feels, and making the apology about your experience rather than hers will leave her feeling diminished and invisible all over again.

In your apology, you could also ask if there’s anything she thinks you can do at this point that would help her. Maybe she needs to hear something specific from you that she’s wanted to hear for years. Maybe she’d like you to hear about the depth of the pain you inflicted and how it has affected her life—without you becoming defensive, but simply listening and taking it in.

Whatever you choose to do—and whatever she decides to do with it, even if she does come to a place of forgiveness—you’re still going to have to find a way to come to terms with what you did. Some of you have asked if there’s room both in these conversations and in the greater #MeToo discussion for forgiveness, and there is—but that’s primarily a conversation you need to have with yourself. Your feelings matter too, but they’re your responsibility, not hers.

What you need to consider is: What would help you give yourself permission to forgive yourself while also taking full responsibility for what you did? Forgiveness generally comes in stages and while you can’t force it, you can encourage it along, reflecting on all this by yourself or perhaps talking it over with a therapist or trusted friend. In that process, you should remember that punishing yourself isn’t productive—it doesn’t change what happened, or help the person you assaulted.

Instead, forgiving yourself might help you come to a greater understanding of yourself in a way that allows you to contribute something positive to the world. This might be reflected in your personal relationships with women, or in your contribution to the greater #MeToo movement. Maybe you’ll decide to help raise awareness by actively changing the culture of your campus or workplace, standing up for women who are being harassed, or donating to causes that support victims of sexual assault.

There are as many ways to approach this situation as there are possible outcomes, but the fact that you’re having this reckoning and want to do something about your past actions is hopeful for you and for women who have been assaulted. It’s precisely these kinds of reckonings that lead to societal change and healing for all involved.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.