Does it matter if they stopped? Does it matter if they changed? a person asked in a conversation I was part of, about all these sexual assault and harassment revelations.
I think it does, although I know it’s hard to measure and that it may never matter to the people they harmed. And I certainly don’t know if a particular man has examined his behavior, has recognized it for what it was, regrets it or has changed. I hope that all men accused of prior assault or harassment have stopped harming women but I rarely have information about that. There may be no proof; we have no obligation to trust them ever again, but that does not mean they cannot change.
And no, random good work is not sufficient. People are multi-faceted and examples of generous or “good” behavior does indicate rehabilitation with regard to misogyny or sexism or preying on women. Specific good work to combat the harassment and assault of women and the manipulation of power imbalances between men and women does.
So I do think it matters if individual men change. And I hope we will recognize it when they do, without attempting to erase harm they cause and without demanding that victims behave in any particular way toward men who harmed them. But I believe in rehabilitation or I would not work in court reform; I would not make an effort to change myself or my community.
This is what I think “Of course you’ve all done it. Each of you. Even if it was just laughing at a gross misogynist joke with your mates when you were fourteen, even if it made you feel uncomfortable to laugh and not say ‘dude, that’s not cool.’ What separates the good among you from the unsafe among you is the ability to one day stop going along. To one day recognize that you’re not ‘pushing a boundary’, you’re harming someone. To admit that there was no gray area, you assaulted that person. And stop doing it and start calling other men out when they do it.”
So yes, I believe that it matters if men change, even if just in their own hearts and own actions, but even more in the way they respond to the men around them and the shitty things those men do to women. I believe men need to change, and can change, and I believe they do.
Even recognizing the possibility of sincere regret, of actual person growth and rehabilitation, I know there are boundaries to it. I know that the journey from being an adolescent who kisses a girl against her will at a kegger to a man who always seeks consent is a different journey than that of a man who demands sexual favors at the price of your career. It’s clear some men don’t regret their behavior only that they’ve been caught and that the world seems no longer willing to accept their excuses. In either case,
Most importantly, I know that is irrelevant both to consequences and to the opinion of any given victim. No matter how clear the evidence of either repentance or rehabilitation, a person harmed by sexual assault or sexual harassment owes the perpetrator nothing. Not forgiveness, not understanding, not belief in his rehabilitation, not assistance in repairing his name. Nothing.
These things can both be true: that men who harass and assault women can be taught to change and that the women they harm owe them nothing if they do. By extension, the rest of us do not owe them trust, even when we believe they are doing the work. If you break trust, it will not be readily available to you in the future.