Even as #metoo was shifting public awareness about just how pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault are, many women lamented that they were now, in addition to being the targets of assault, bearing the burden of speaking out about it and, in the process, being the ones charged with making things better. To many, this was no different than what had always been asked of women: taking the responsibility for preventing sexual assault—whether by being more chaste in 1918 or by sharing their pain on social media a century later. In response, the hashtag #ItWasMe emerged to share admissions of culpability. “There are too many times to count when I have made my hunger more important than her feelings or boundaries,” wrote one man on Facebook in a post that was shared more than 200 times, and in which he described how he had tried to sexually penetrate a woman who was asleep after she had declined his advances. “#Itwasme and I was a piece of shit,” another man tweeted. “I can’t take it back, and no apology is enough. I can only work to be a better human.”
The notion of perpetrators sharing their stories is controversial. Some survivors feel that assailants should not be given a voice in this discussion, because they’ve dominated it for so long with their denials and dismissals. Others feel that public confrontations are key to inspiring change. The 2017 National Film Board documentary A Better Man follows co-director Attiya Khan as she has a series of conversations with an abusive former partner. She made the film, after years of discussions with her ex, to show the ways that abusers can change and take responsibility.
When coming forward, men must tread carefully to help, rather than reinjure, the people they’ve hurt, says Steph Guthrie, the film’s impact producer. “I think that hearing a person take responsibility for the harm they caused to you—it can be very healing if you do get the sense that it is truly for you and your well-being,” Guthrie says.
In the course of my research, I posted a message on Facebook asking if any men who had been confronting their own behaviour since the start of #MeToo might be willing to talk. Within a few days, I heard confessions from men in their thirties to their sixties. Some seemed unable to stop once they started; others were halting, hampered by shame or fear. Some had committed assaults that they had already tried to apologize to their victims for. Some were unsure if they had crossed a line or not and wanted to figure it out. Some seemed bent on unburdening themselves or getting outside confirmation that what they had done wasn’t that bad after all—they were trying to use me, and this story, to get absolution.
Guthrie, who often encounters this range of reactions in her work, says a good operating principle for perpetrators is not to persist in contacting anyone you’ve harmed unless they explicitly want you to. She also suggests that, before addressing behaviour publicly, perpetrators should consider the effect of doing so on anyone they have hurt. She and her colleagues “are big proponents of men creating vulnerable spaces to have these conversations with other men,” she says, “and not asking women and non-binary people to hold their shame and their guilt.” The creators of A Better Man created a home discussion guide for men who want to watch the documentary together and talk about it after. The guide includes a prompt for them to “think back to a time they hurt somebody,” she says. “We explicitly encourage them to think of an incident that makes them feel shame to remember.”
Pillay says her understanding of coercion has changed a lot since that day on the beach. “I had a strong desire for sexual relating and affection and intimacy from a young age,” she says. “I think in my head, because I had that desire, it was hard for me to disentangle transgressions from the fact that I did want sexual activity—I just didn’t want it with those people, in those ways.” She says that later on, “I came to understand that sexual appetite does not equate to deserving whatever anyone wants to do.” Her long-standing struggle with self-blame for her abuse (which also included another assault she experienced about a year after the attack on the beach) has lifted considerably in the wake of the public discussions of assault that followed Jian Ghomeshi’s trial.
She says people around her are shifting too. “I’m seeing a collective elevation, because there have been so many groups talking about how to handle these things” since #MeToo, she says. Late last year, a man at a house party she attended repeatedly tried to shift from cuddling with her to more overtly sexual touching. She said no, got up, and walked away. Two days later, she alerted the party’s hosts, who spoke to the man about his conduct. She says that, even when habits and power dynamics make it difficult, “I want everyone to know that we all have the right to speak up about any discomfort and to be well-heard. No one is entitled to access another’s body without permission. Affection is a birthright to be shared, not taken.”
This article is the cover story of the March 2018 issue of The Walrus, where it is published under the headline “Sexual Evolution.”