The near-daily tide of sexual misconduct allegations against famous men has spawned a head-turning stream of apologies, acknowledgments that experts say have been generally self-serving and aimed at the public more than the victims.
“They’ve been awful,” psychologist Harriet Lerner said of the public apologies.
The attention these allegations have drawn, forcing apologies that are decades overdue — and costing a growing roster of famous men their jobs — marks a watershed moment and a major cultural shift. Certainly, when the allegations are true, any apology is better than none at all. And an apology can be especially tricky territory for the wealthy and famous who are trying to avert lawsuits or ruined careers. Even so, in nearly every case, the apologies have fallen far short, experts said.
TV talk show personality Charlie Rose is the latest to be accused of groping and unwanted sexual advances. His then 21-year-old former assistant said he used to walk around naked and call her to talk about his sexual fantasies. In a statement, Rose said he didn’t think all the allegations leveled against him by eight women were accurate but felt he “was pursuing shared feelings” and now has “a profound new respect for women and their lives.”
“Rose’s apology, like most of the others, focused primarily on him rather than on his victims,” said Guy Winch, a New York-based psychologist, author and public speaker who specializes in relationships. He added that Rose’s mea culpa includes an “actual apology,” which many others did not.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also offered an “actual apology,” he said, for mock-groping a woman’s breasts while she was asleep, which was captured in a photograph and was his idea of a tasteless gag at the time. But Franken says he doesn’t have the same memory his accuser does of an off-set rehearsal in which she says he put his tongue in her mouth, a response that casts doubt on her account.
Lerner, author of “Why Won’t You Apologize?” said other famous men, including movie executive Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey, have offered “faux apologies.”
Weinstein, accused of raping and assaulting women, has denied rape allegations but said he knows his behavior has caused pain. In his apology, he said he would seek a therapist, then pivoted and said he was going to channel his anger to fight the NRA. He also said: “I so respect all women.”
Spacey, accused of groping young men and teens, announced he was gay when actor Anthony Rapp accused the “House of Cards” star of making an aggressive advance toward him more than three decades ago, when Rapp was 14. Spacey’s tactic seemed a thinly veiled attempt at changing the subject, experts said.
Those two don’t make the cut as heartfelt apologies, Lerner said.
“One doesn’t need to be an apology expert to recognize apologizes that are slippery, vague and devoid of accountability,” she said.
New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, accused of unwanted sexual advances toward young journalists, said he had been drinking too much. And Dustin Hoffman, accused of sexually harassing a former intern, said in part, “I feel terrible for anything I might have done that could have put her in an uncomfortable situation.”
The apologies that have been splashed across the news in recent weeks are more geared toward the men keeping their reputation and fan base intact than at making amends with the victims, according to experts.
“The apology is almost exclusively about the person who had the poor behavior,” Winch said. “That’s a hundred percent for the fans or the followers or the constituents.”
He said many in the recent wave of apologies appear to have a sense of entitlement.
“They are crafted so fans can say, ‘What do you want? He apologized,’ ” Winch said. “They are not crafted with the idea of owning what they did.”
In its best form, an apology is a direct acknowledgment of a wrong, and it eases the distress of the wronged party, said Cindy Frantz, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College who has studied the apology.
“What we found is if people don’t feel heard and understood, the apology is not effective,” Frantz said. “They need to feel the perpetrator gets what they did and understands how it impacts the victim. They need to feel genuine remorse.”
So that means no excuses about being drunk, lacking impulse control or any other justification that deflects blame.
A genuine apology says: “I get it, I screwed up, I was wrong, your feelings make sense, and I want you to know I won’t do it again,” Lerner said. Then it includes making reparations that fit the wrongdoing.
That’s where Louis C.K. fell short, Winch said. C.K. has admitted to masturbating in front of young women in professional settings, which he has acknowledged was irresponsible because of the power he had over them.
In his apology, the comedian went further than most in accepting responsibility, naming his victims and attempting empathy. In his statement he said: “Now I’m aware of the extent of the impact of my actions. I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position.”
What he should do now, Winch said, is apologize to them personally and try to help them, and other women, in their careers.
“I think it’s appropriate, if it damaged anyone’s career, to advocate for them to get roles,” he said. “He can talk to his buddies who are showrunners and urge them to hire more women as writers so the writing rooms aren’t so imbalanced. He can lend his support behind the scenes.”
Yet when warranted, a badly worded apology, they say, is better than no acknowledgment at all, which is what some men who have been publicly accused have done.
“It’s their sense of grandiosity,” Winch said. “They think they can behave in this way and still maintain their fans and followers.”
Poorly worded apologies are preferable to none at all, Frantz said, because it shifts the power dynamic as the victim can choose whether to accept the apology. They are also “an important part of shaping a new cultural narrative,” she said.
“I see it as a really important moment, this is part of a culture shift from a world were women get sexually assaulted in the workplace and it’s accepted, to where men understand it’s not okay, and women feel empowered to come forward,” she said.
This story has been updated.