“I am devastated that 80 years of my life is at risk of being undermined, in the blink of an eye, by Thursday’s media reports. All victims of assault and harassment deserve to be heard. And we need to listen to them. But it is not right to equate horrific incidents of sexual assault with misplaced compliments or humour. I admit that I am someone who feels a need to try to make women — and men — feel appreciated and at ease around me. As a part of that, I would often try to joke with and compliment women, in what I thought was a light-hearted and humorous way. Clearly I was not always coming across the way I intended. And that is why I apologised Thursday and will continue to apologise to anyone I might have upset, however unintentionally. But I also want to be clear: I did not create unsafe work environments. I did not assault women. I did not offer employment or advancement in exchange for sex. Any suggestion that I did so is completely false.”
Being accused of assault is different than being accused of harassment, but just because it isn’t assault doesn’t mean that it is appropriate. This distinction is an important one for everyone, not just for Freeman. Entertainment journalist Maggie Parker wrote about her exchange with Freeman at a red carpet in 2013 for People. In it, she details how Freeman answered her question of, “If you could do one magic trick, what would it be?” with, “Honey, you wouldn’t have a stitch on…how about that?” Parker continues by saying that while she felt uncomfortable, she let the comment slide because “it could have been way worse.”
As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements gain more momentum, and women feel it is safer to come forward with their experiences, we will continue to have progressively more nuanced conversations about what gender equality and sexual harassment means in different contexts. Workplace culture is becoming the next big conversation in these movements. Men have raised questions in response asking what is appropriate behaviour at work with their female coworkers. Is it okay to hug a woman that you work with? What about compliments? The answer is simple. If you wouldn’t say or do it to the men in your office, don’t do it to the women. Freeman’s comment is a prime example. He would have never said that to a man interviewing him. His remarks to Parker as well as the others are objectifying and the types of comments that make women feel less than human.
Both men and women downplay sexual harassment for their own reasons. Men accused of sexual harassment, like Freeman, fall back on their intent and comparison to the far end of the spectrum of behaviour. Women do the same thing by making concessions and wanting to remain agreeable. The key difference is that men make the excuses for themselves and women make excuses for everyone but themselves.
What comes after this apology is so important. If we want change, we have to give people the room to change. Not all men who are, or become, allies will come from a place of blamelessness. Many will have learned from their own mistakes. Freeman has the chance to be one of those men. We don’t have to “cancel” him. Instead, we should figure out what we can learn from this to better inform our conversations going forward.